I despised the dumpy kid for curling up and letting us beat on him. He didn't know it, but the less he fought the worse he made it on himself and the harder he made it on me. I hated feeling the guilt for something we hadn't even done yet.
We'd found the kid walking alone a few blocks from 86th Street, our turf. He was walking with a fudgesicle in one hand and a bottle of Coca-Cola in the other. He didn't have a care in the world as he waddled down the street. For him, summer vacations meant time away from the teasing and cruelty of high school. Being a tubby kid with pimples would be tough amongst the sharks that stalk the halls everyday. When I had that realization, I felt sorry for the little bastard and what we were about to do to him.
I don't think the rest of the guys felt the way I did. They looked forward to moments like this. Miles Morgan, Ronnie Dougan, Terrance "Terry" Smalls and Jay O'Neal were my friends, my family, my brothers. Together we were the 86th Street Choppers. All of us were eighteen except Ronnie who was nineteen and the meanest motherfucker in the bunch.
We stopped the pudgy kid in the middle of the sidewalk and surrounded him. He wore a dirty white t-shirt and high-water jeans. Everything about him practically begged for this moment.
The kid stopped eating his fudgesicle and muttered, "What's up, fellas?"
Miles grinned and shook his head while clicking his tongue against his teeth. Miles was a thick guy, not fat, just naturally big. He weighed in around two hundred pounds and none of it was soft. Miles scratched his chin and said, "I'm thirsty."
The kid stared at the Coca-Cola in his hand, thoughts racing through his mind. The fudgesicle dripped down onto his other hand.
Jay O'Neal snatched the bottle of soda away from the kid and handed it to Miles. Jay was Miles' shadow and a scrapper in the best Irish tradition. He hated his red hair so much that he always had on a Yankees baseball hat to cover the flat top he sported.
Miles studied the bottle and growled at the kid whose eyes were now wide in fear. "Coke? I hate Coke."
Miles glared back up at the kid. "You know I hate Coke, right?"
Jay laughed before saying, "Shit, everyone knows you hate Coke."
Mile nodded at Jay and held the bottle up to the kid's face. "Then why isn't this Pepsi?"
The fat kid stuttered, "B-b-b-because I l-l-like C-C-Coke."
Miles threw the bottle against the nearby brick building. It shattered, exploding shards of glass everywhere.
Terrance smacked the fudgesicle from the kid's hand, sending it to the sidewalk. The kid squealed in fear. Terry had a chip on his shoulder because he grew up black in this neighborhood. I could care less what color Terry was. His blood was red just like mine and we had spilled plenty of ours together in battles over turf and respect. Until he got in with us, things were tough for Terry. There were plenty of ignorant bastards around who would attack any person because of their color. Maybe that's why Terry liked these moments so much.
An evil smile found its home on Ronnie's face. He stepped in front of the kid and laid down the rules. "Fight back or it'll get worse."
Confusion spread on the kid's face. "Huh?"
Ronnie whipped out a punch to the kid's nose and sent him reeling backwards. Terrance caught him and shoved him back into the circle.
Fight back, I chanted to myself in hopes it would somehow magically inspire the little bastard to come up swinging.
Ronnie slammed two punches into the kid's head before stepping back to let the others in.
The kid held up his hands and cried out, "I don't wanna fight." His voice was suddenly high and screechy.
Miles slipped in and hook-punched the kid in the kidney. As the kid screamed in pain, Miles laughed and danced around like Cassius Clay.
I stepped in front of the kid and slapped him hard across the face. His eyes focused hard and drool ran from his lips. I leaned into him and ordered, "Fight back."
The kid bawled and shook his head wildly.
"Fight me," I growled and drove a punch deep into his soft stomach. Tears and dirt covered his face as he begged for us to stop.
Ronnie kicked him in the back of the thigh, ending the whimpering by dropping the kid to the ground.
Miles booted the kid's big belly, doubling him up and forcing him to suck for more air.
Ronnie yelled "Grab him" and we scrambled for a hold as the kid thrashed around. I ended up grabbing his legs with Miles.
All of us dragged the kid into the street and Ronnie pressed the kid's face on to the edge of the curb. He kept pushing until the kid opened his mouth in pain and ended up with a mouthful of concrete. The rest of us pinned the kid down on the ground. We all glanced around constantly, checking for witnesses and cops.
Ronnie asked, "Who's up?"
Jay said, "It's Mike's turn," as he struggled to keep the kid's chest pinned to the street.
Ronnie looked at me and nodded. I knew it wasn't a request.
My stomach grew queasy as I let go of my hold on the kid and stepped up next to his head. Everyone yelled at me to hurry up since the kid was panicking and trying to take his mouth off the curb edge.
I lifted up my foot up over the kid's head, closed my eyes and stomped down. I felt the crunching of teeth rattle its way through my leg, work its way up my body and slam into my brain. I hated doing that. I didn't mind beating the kid. I just hated destroying his teeth.
I could hear the guys cheering as the kid let go of an inhuman shriek. I opened my eyes when Ronnie shook me.
"C'mon, man, cops'll be here soon."
I looked down at the kid who had rolled over onto his back. Blood covered his face and his eyes looked like they had seen the devil up close and personal.
Ronnie yanked on my arm one more time before I turned and ran.
The summer heat was stifling. So was the world for that fact. The country was at war in Vietnam and some of our family was there.
Miles' cousin died one month after he got in to country. Ronnie's brother came home missing a leg. Jay's twin older brothers came home in boxes. Terrance's dad, his real dad, went to war and ended up missing. The Marines couldn't find him and apologized to his mom in a telegram.
My brother, Tom, was in country almost a year and fighting with the 101st. He actually volunteered to go Vietnam. He'd write me letters occasionally. When he first got over there, he used to say how important the war was for our country and the fight against communism. In his last letter, though, he said he couldn't wait to get away from that land and the war. He told me the only thing he'd miss would be the LBFs. Little Brown Fuckers. The Vietnamese prostitutes. He said they could do things with a pussy no American girl would ever figure out. I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but he promised to tell me when he got home.
We were all waiting for and dreading our notifications. That little white card that read US Selective Services Draft Card. Jay wasn't worried about the draft now that both of his brothers were dead and neither was Terrance who'd lost a kidney in a car accident and his dad to the war. But the rest of us knew those cards were coming soon and we hated the world because of it.
We had a rule in the gang; if they fought back hard then we let them go. That didn't mean they could fight half-assed to get away. No, they had to lay every thing they had on the table before we would let them walk. If they quit or if they didn't fight at all, then we busted them up hard. We busted them up permanent.
I don't remember how the fights started or why but I used to love them. It was about the combat, the challenge of pitting ourselves against others. Things went bad when people refused to fight us. I think it was one of those hippie fucks who first said he wouldn't fight. We had to show him the error of his ways and used the curb. It seemed like a good idea the first time until I saw the damage. Each time got worse for me especially after I had to do it a couple of times. If I was strong like my brother Tom, I would have stood up and said no more. But I wasn't so the fights continued.
People say life on the street is hard. They don't know anything. Life is easy. It's always there. Breathe in and breathe out and you got life figured out. It's the people who are hard. All you had to do was look at the war. All you had to do was look at us.
A few weeks later, we found another kid walking alone and singing to himself. He was tall and skinny with a sad kind of gait. When I saw Ronnie hunch his shoulders I knew we'd found the next victim.
As he got close, we got up from the steps we were sitting on and surrounded him. He didn't say a word and took his hands out of his pockets.
"Sing me a song, queer bait," Terry teased.
The kid eyed him but didn't say a word.
"Shit, I don't want that faggot singing again. He sounded worse than fuckin' Ringo." Jay slapped Terry on the back and laughed at his own joke.
The kid didn't move anything but his eyes. Something didn't feel right about this one which caused my stomach to knot up.
Ronnie shook his head and chested up to the kid. "Fight back or it'll get worse," he ordered.
The tall, skinny kid just stared into Ronnie's eyes.
Ronnie waved his hand in front of the kid's face. "Can you hear me, retard? Or should I just beat the shit out of you until you do hear me."
The bean pole slammed his fist into Ronnie's face before Ronnie even lifted a hand. Ronnie stumbled backward as confusion mixed with pain.
Jay jumped and swung wildly at the kid, missing him entirely. The kid moved to the side and used Jay as a shield for Terrance's haymaker. Terry tried to pull the violent punch but cold-cocked Jay in the ear. Jay wobbled for a second and then dropped like an anchor.
Miles surprised the kid with a bear hug from the rear that lifted him off the ground. As he struggled to get free, I ran up and sucker punched him in the gut. Miles threw him to the ground with a sickening thud.
The guys jumped on the beanpole and dragged him into the street. Ronnie grabbed his head and slammed into onto the curb, forcing him to open wide and breaking teeth in the process.
"Ronnie," I yelled. "Let him go."
"Fuck you, man," he screamed at me, his eyes wild with rage. He turned his lunatic gaze to Terrance. "Bust this bastard's teeth."
Terry jumped off of the kid and stepped up next to his head. When he lifted his foot, I shoved him over and sent him sprawling into the guys.
There were arms and legs flying everywhere as he fell. The guys let go of the kid to help catch Terry before he hit the pavement. In the confusion, the kid got up and sprinted away.
Miles chased him for a bit but eventually gave up.
When Terry found his footing, he ran towards me with murder in his eyes. Jay stepped in between him and me and held up Terrance. "Relax," he screamed at Terry.
Ronnie stood up and dusted himself off. He walked up to me and put his face inches from mine.
"What the fuck is your problem, man?"
"The kid fought back. We let him go."
Ronnie thumped me in the chest with his finger. "He started the fight. All bets are off at that point."
I shook my head and pointed back at Ronnie. "We started the fight. You were gonna break the rule."
"You betrayed us, you fuck. You crossed the line."
Miles ran back up to us and saw Jay calming down Terry while Ronnie and I yelled at each other. He jumped in between us and put a hand on each of our chests, forcing us apart.
"What the hell is going on here?"
Ronnie never took his eyes from me. "Mike is out."
"What?" I growled. "You can't make that decision."
Terry hollered at me, "You're gone, motherfucker."
Ronnie slid his eyes over to Miles and back to me. "What side of the line are you on, Miles?"
Miles met my eyes, his hands still holding Ronnie and me apart. "He's family, Ronnie. I say he stays."
Ronnie shouted over his shoulder. "It's up to you, Jay. Stay or go?"
Jay turned around, but held Terry back with one arm. His face was hard as stone. "You didn't stand with us."
"Jay, he fought back," I pleaded.
Jay shook his head. "Doesn't matter. We're family. You chose him over us. I vote you're gone."
Ronnie wiggled his fingers in front of my face. "Take off, pretty boy."
"Fuck you," I yelled and flipped him the bird.
Miles grabbed my arm and spun me around. He leaned in my ear and whispered hard. "Leave. Now. Don't turn around."
I walked away without looking back.
The next morning I laid in bed listening to Ain't No Mountain High Enough on the radio. As Marvin Gaye's voice floated through my room, I tossed into the air a baseball I once caught at a Yankees game. I went to that game with my mom and Tom on my twelfth birthday. That's all I wanted for a present and my mom made it come true. My dad lived in Portland, Oregon, and sent me a Yankees hat and a new mitt for that birthday. Six birthdays later and that one still rated the highest of my life.
A knock on the front door shook me from my childhood memories. I hoped it would be one of the guys, telling me that they would take me back. When my mom shrieked, I knew it wasn't them.
I sprinted into the living room and stopped when I saw the guy wearing Army dress greens. He had his hat tucked under one arm and wore a grim scowl on his face. He swallowed hard as he watched my mother weeping in front of him.
When I touched her shoulder, she turned to me and fell into my arms. I could barely support her weight and ended up helping her to the sofa where we sat.
The Army officer stood by and nervously looked around, not knowing how to comfort my mother but unable to leave the sad moment.
She cried into my chest.
"He's dead," she managed to say between sobs.
I patted her back. "I know, mom."
I didn't leave the house for two days. A parade of aunts and uncles came by the house to bring food and sympathy. I stayed in my room and looked through Tom's old stuff.
The first night after I found out about Tom's death I watched a news report about the fighting in Vietnam and the rising death toll. When the report ended, I realized I wouldn't have to go over there now that I was the only son left. Guilt washed over me when I felt that sweet relief. Ashamed, I turned off the television and cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, I morbidly read the letters he had sent me while he was over there. I cried again for a while after that and then put the letters into his high school year book. I slid the book under my mattress, hiding the memories but keeping them close.
"Fight or it'll get worse."
I could smell Ronnie's breath because he stood so close to me. It smelled like a rancid mixture of strong onions and stronger alcohol.
They cornered me in the alley just south of Rockaway. I was on my way to Mickey's Billiards to blow off some steam playing pool and pinball. I couldn't take the depression at home anymore and needed to get out.
When they first surrounded me, I learned the fear all the others had known. Except I was sure there would be no getting away for me.
"You hear about my brother?" I asked. My voice sounded strangely calm.
Terry shrugged. "So fucking what, man? You ain't shit to us, now."
I glanced at Miles who stared down at the ground.
Ronnie stepped up to me and swayed slightly. He'd been drinking which meant he was going to be especially mean. "Fight or it'll get worse."
Jay slammed into me from behind and sent me sprawling across the blacktop of the alley. Skin tore away from the heels of my palms as I slid to a stop. I scrambled to my feet and put my back against the nearest wall. Terry came running up at me and I kicked him as hard as I could in the balls. He collapsed, clutching himself and screaming in agony.
Ronnie caught me from the side and tackled me to the ground. He kneed me several times in the ribs as I clawed at his eyes. I felt something give under my fingers and Ronnie pulled back, clutching his face. I punched him in the throat a second before Jay came up and kicked me in the head.
I covered up and fought the bells clanging inside my skull. Jay stomped at me a couple of times before I staggered to my feet and launched myself at him. I caught him off guard when I ran into him and we both fell to the ground. I climbed onto to his chest, grabbed his head and slammed him into the ground. His eyes rolled backwards and he passed out.
My balance was shaken so I steadied myself on the wall of a building. I made my way over to Terry who was on his hands and knees and throwing up. I kicked him in the balls from behind and he let out a funny little shriek and dropped to the ground.
Ronnie lay on his back, kicking his legs in pain while his hands covered his eyes. When I punted him in the head, he went limp and his hands fell to the concrete. Blood covered his face. I grabbed him by the foot and dragged him into the street. I put his face up on the curb and stood over him.
I met Miles' eyes who stood frozen in the alley. Even though he was the biggest guy in the gang, he suddenly looked small. He shook his head at me, sadness consuming him. I stared at the only friend who didn't attack me and raised my foot up over Ronnie's head. Tears burned down my cheeks.
"I didn't want this," Miles said, regret in his eyes.
"Neither did I."
I put my foot down carefully next to Ronnie's head and rubbed the tears from my eyes with both of my hands. Men weren't supposed to cry and I'd been crying a lot over the past two days.
I grabbed a foot and dragged Ronnie out of the street and onto the sidewalk. He let out a small moan when I dropped his leg.
Miles never moved towards me. He shoved his hands into his pockets and nodded once. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "I'm sorry about Tom."
I swallowed hard, a taste of bile invading my senses. I wanted to say something profound, something important. I'd lost my friends. I'd lost my brother. "Thanks," was the only thing that came to mind.
We stood there for a moment in silence, knowing none of us would ever be the same. With the sound of police sirens approaching, I left Miles standing in the alley and went home.