“How well do you know these guys Kenny?”
“Eh, well enough. I went to school with them.”
We were sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the river on a ballast stone paved access road. The Firebird idled gently. The occasional rock bounced up and hit the undercarriage. Daniel grimaced from the passenger seat each time the clunking noise thudded. Kenny was driving, and it didn’t seem to bother him nearly as much as it did Daniel. But Daniel never once complained.
After the first time Kenny drove the Firebird, he was by Daniel’s side without fail. Kenny was at Daniel’s house more than his own. Alicia came around whenever she was off work and out of school. Together, the two of them spent more time with Daniel than anyone.
When Daniel went to school, Kenny dropped him off and picked him up in the Firebird. Daniel behaved as if he bought the car for Kenny to drive. When the weekend arrived and I stayed the night with Daniel, Kenny was there. When we inevitably decided we wanted take out, Kenny picked it up while we stayed behind and played video games. When Daniel wanted to have a party, Kenny supplied the booze from his stolen stash. Kenny was Daniel’s indentured servant. Kenny got to drive a nice car all day while Daniel was at school. Kenny got free take out. And it was an open secret that Daniel regularly lent Kenny money.
Kenny was a tragic, but not dishonorable figure circling Daniel’s periphery. He was an overweight and under showered high school drop out who had been fired from every fast food and minimum wage job in town. His belly lapped low over his pants, and He often ate an entire large pizza by himself when we ordered out on the weekends. It was a point of pride for him to be a big eater. Kenny loved a competition for the glutinous, I think it was because they were the only endurance contests he could win. His facial hair was red, long and scraggly, and just as often as not he emanated the smell of wintergreen tobacco with every breath.
But Daniel viewed Kenny as a simultaneous mentor, protector, and subordinate. Perhaps he saw him as an older proximity of himself. Perhaps Kenny was the one person who was both subject to Daniel and more experienced than Daniel. Kenny could fix or build anything. He was an able welder and carpenter, an amateur mechanic, and master manipulator. To almost any other social group, Kenny would’ve been viewed as inferior in the chain of social Darwinism. He was poor, unattractive, and uneducated. But to us, he was useful.
Kenny stole for us. He risked getting speeding tickets so that his passengers could experience recklessness. He supplied us with bottomless, free, stolen alcohol.
And Kenny also gave us stories to tell. He introduced us to weird, older people. Kenny was our passport to social circles outside of our normal grasp. And tonight, we were going to a bonfire along the river. And if the traffic along the access road was any indication, the party would be massive. There was a car in front of us and two behind, there was the glow of headlights for a mile before the road took a sharp bend and the light disappeared behind the trees.
“Party should be just around that turn.”
“Sure, old timer.” I leaned up from the back seat to pat Kenny on the shoulder.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Mikey?” Kenny laughed.
“To be fair, you did say that like three turns ago,” Steven said.
“Yeah. To be fair.” Daniel piled on.
“Well, all these fuckin’ cars are goin’ somewhere now ain’t they?”
We reached the bend in the road and a tall fire peaked through the trees down over the hill. Dim reflections of tail gates, eyes, and beer bottles flickered. The party was well under way.
“Fuck.” Daniel smacked Kenny with the back of his hand. “We aren’t pulling down in there.” He pointed through the windshield. The road to the campsite was steep mud. Rock outcroppings stuck up periodically from between the deep tire ruts. “We will bottom out and those rocks will shred the bottom of this thing.”
Kenny sighed. He knew Daniel was right, but hated that an issue as petty as whether or not the car would be destroyed halted our forward progress. “What do you want me to do?” The cars were starting to pile up behind us at the entrance to the road.
“Let’s just go on by. Maybe we can park at the next lot. I don’t want us to get stuck or blocked in down there.” Daniel squinted, trying to get a glimpse of what was happening around the fire. “There a lot of people.”
Most of the silhouettes that I could see through the trees were the shape of old, beaten down pickup trucks. Parking around the fire likely meant Daniel’s car getting keyed. “I’m with Daniel. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with all this,” I said.
“It’ll be alright Chucky.” Steven laughed at me. He had taken to calling me Chucky Finster, after the Rugrats character whose catchphrase was “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Someone has to keep you idiots alive.” It’s true. I was the conservative one. Everyone else dove headlong into everything. I took time to think, considered the potential consequences, attempted to talk everyone else out of it, and then shrug before I did it anyway. I got there just the same as everyone else, but I took some extra steps.
“That’s true Stevie. Mikey here’s kept us out of trouble a few times,” Kenny admitted. “Remember that time we got pulled over for drag racing and Mikey knew the cop?”
“Heh, I remember. The guy used to work at Foodlion. Told Mikey he should have better friends.” Steven forced a frown but couldn’t hold it and cracked up.
Ultimately Kenny did what Daniel wanted, drove on to the next lot. “Shit,” Kenny muttered. Two cars were parked side by side at the top of the next driveway. “Looks like you all weren’t the only ones with this idea.”
It was true, the next three lots all had their driveways clogged with parked cars. “All of these are for the party?” I asked.
“Must be,” Kenny answered.
“The whole school must be here.”
“More like the whole town. Here we go.” Kenny pulled the car into an open space in the first open driveway we came to. “We are like a mile from the party.” Kenny groaned.
“I don’t mind walkin’.” I reached forward from the back seat and popped the door handle.
“Better walk than tear my car up.” Daniel shoved the door open and rolled out of the car.
“This better be a great party for all this trouble,” Steven complained.
“What trouble?” Kenny asked. “I drove. Daniel put gas in the car.”
“Yeah, quit being a whiny asshole Steven.” Daniel shut Steven down.
“Let’s get walking. We got a long way to go.” Kenny trudged up the slight hill to the access road.
“Kenny, think you could say we, uh…got a short time to get there?” I could barely contain myself.
“Yeah. Sure.” Kenny swatted at the air, distractedly. “Damn mosquitos already.”
Daniel laughed, and I started singing “East bound and down, loaded up and truckin’, we’re gonna do what they say can’t be done. We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there. I’m east bound, just watch ol’ “Bandit” run.”
Kenny shook his head. You’re a fuckin’ idiot.
“What’s the matter Kenny, not a fan of the Bandit?” Daniel teased.
“No, I love the bandit.”
“Damn right, no one talks shit on Burt Reynolds,” Daniel said.
“Mikey can’t sing worth a shit though,” Steven said.
“Nope.” Kenny agreed
“I know.” I frowned. “I know I can’t sing.”
“Wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway over the sound of the train coming.”
I struggled to hear over the stones crunching, but I pointed my ear toward the tracks. I heard a high squeal. “The train is coming.”
“Do you hear that train a comin?” Kenny started.
“Is she comin’ round the bend?” Steven giggled.
“I don’t get it you guys?” I knew it was Folsom Prison Blues, but I wanted to spoil their joke.
“Yeah, what song are you all doing?” Daniel played along.
Kenny sighed. The train was close now.
“We should throw rocks at it.” I suggested.
“Nah.” Kenny dismissed me. “Anyone got any change?”
“Sure.” Daniel reached in his pocket and pulled out a pile of mixed coins.
Kenny put each of the coins on the tracks, carefully positioning them close to the center of the rail. The coins jumped and vibrated with the slight movement of the tracks. The front of the train was visible. It would be on us soon. Kenny jumped away, and we retreated into the dark canopy of the trees.
After the train’s engine was around the next bend, we stepped forward and tossed rocks at the sides of the railcars. When one struck an empty car, the air rang like church bells and we laughed. The trains and everything that surrounded them seemed mystical. They moved impossible amounts of coal and goods, seemingly on their own. On a conceptual level, I knew that the trains were operated by men, but standing so close, the train seemed a leviathan traveling autonomously. To many, the trains represented an opportunity for wealth. Kenny, Jeb, Del, and Gray were always talking about how they’d be set if they could just get on at the railroad. They’d get a travel allowance, greater than twenty dollars an hour, and the promise of a pension. And each one of them had an uncle or a cousin that was their ticket. Plan A was winning the lottery, but the railroad was just as good and only a bit more likely.
Kenny stepped forward and grabbed the coins, juggling them from hand to hand and pushing out his breath like he’d just eaten something that burned his tongue. “They’re still really hot.
He continued to toss the coins between his hands until they were cool enough to hold, then he tossed one to each of us. They were warm to the touch, flattened into oval shaped disks. The outline of the eagle’s wings were barely visible. “That’s pretty cool,” Steven announced.
“Yeah, my mom told me about this. Said she used to do it when she was a kid and lived by the train tracks,” I remembered.
“Train’s heavy enough to flatten them like that just by runnin’ over them,” Kenny added.
Daniel pocketed his coin, unimpressed. He looked at his watch, “it’s getting late.”
“The fire is still going through the trees.” Steven pointed to a faint, orange glow. We had made more progress than I thought.
We reached the boundaries of the party. Through the woods I could make out the shapes of dozens of people, some seated, some staggering, and some swaying like they were standing on the deck of a ship.
“I’m gonna walk over here in the woods and take a piss,” Kenny announced and moved away from the others.
“I’ll join you,” I followed behind.
“Will you help me hold it up? I only got two hands, and I don’t want it to fall on the ground.”
“I tell you what Kenny, if you can find it out here in the dark, I’ll grab it with my thumb and little finger.”
Kenny stopped and fiddled with his fly, I walked to a nearby sapling.
Kenny groaned in pleasure, “been holdin’ that for a while.”
“Remember Kenny, shake it more than twice and you’re playing with yourself.”
“Gotta shake it at least three times to keep from gettin’ piss on my pants.”
“Whatever you gotta tell yourself, man. No judgement here.”
We zipped up and debated whether we wanted to trudge through the woods directly to the fire or go back to the dirt driveway and walk in. “There’s Daniel and Stevie.” I pointed through the trees. Daniel and Steven were standing near a blue and white cooler trying to work up the courage to push through the crowd and grab a beer. “Can’t even get a beer on their own,” I shook my head. “They look pretty uncomfortable.”
“They got their backs to the trees.” Kenny noted.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” I could only make out the vague outline of his smile in the dim light of the fire.
“Sneak up on em’?”
“Let’s do it.”
Kenny and I stumbled through the brush along the perimeter of the camp site. As far as we could tell, we moved unnoticed. The sounds of music, fire, and conversation masked the crashing of our feet. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the others. A group of guys talked about the girls they were having sex with. The girls talked about how much they hated one another. There was laughter, sadness, and anger. Lovers and friends were in the process of fighting or making up while I listened just out of sight.
Kenny kept a faster pace, and he reached the others first. I lost him behind a tree for a moment before nearly bumping into him. “There they are,” I whispered.
“Now we just gotta sneak up on them,” I took a step from the woods and Kenny followed behind. Daniel and Steven kept their backs to us. Kenny walked from heel to toe, silently like a hunter. I walked with my knees high and my hands out for balance like a sneaking cartoon character.
We were only a few yards out of the woods, when there was shouting and the party fell silent, “You better come at me boy.”
I froze. Kenny stopped sneaking and stepped forward lightly to Daniel and Steven. He grabbed them and they started walking toward me.
“What’s going on?”
Kenny shrugged, “Looks like there’s gonna be a fight.”
“What do we do?” Steven asked.
Kenny laughed, “Well, what do you think? We watch and see what happens.”
“I don’t know Kenny, the longer I’m here the less fun this seems,” Daniel said. “There’s a lot of drugs here. It’s not just beer.”
“Yeah,” Steven agreed, “I saw some guys chopping up something on a piece of glass.”
“They’re doin’ pills. It’s not a big deal, lots of people are doin’ it.” Kenny argued. “Did you see anyone shooting up?”
“Not yet.” Daniel looked at his feet.
“Well, we just hiked through the woods to scare you. We can go back that way if we need to get out.” I offered. “We oughta step back in the woods and see how this shakes out.”
The shouting from the fire was picking up. Kenny told us that the football player’s name was Rilla. He earned the nickname the day his middle school football coach called him ‘strong as a gorilla.’ I’ll admit, the resemblance was there. Rilla was a short ball of muscle, and his arms hung well below his waist. It looked like he was capable of walking on his knuckles or lifting a small car. Right now Rilla had a wirey old man in his face.
“Who’s the old fucker?”
“I don’t recognize him.”
“Must be from out of town. Drifter maybe?”
“Always heard there were hobos livin’ down here. Never believed it though.”
“At any rate, he’s dumb as shit for picking a fight with Rilla.”
“Yeah,” Steven made his voice dusty and airy, “come at me sonny.”
Rilla’s girlfriend was pointing and shouting at the old man, “you better be careful who you’re talkin’ to.”
Rilla didn’t seem keen to fight the old man, despite the difference in size and fitness. He put his hands up. “Just walk away dude.”
The old man gripped and pulled on his stringy, white beard and nodded his head. “Just walk away huh?” The old man took a step forward and took time to carefully roll up the sleeves on his flannel shirt. He leaned close enough for Rilla to smell his breath and shouted, “I’m not going anywhere.” He turned to Rilla’s girlfriend, “You better collar your bitch. She’s got a big…”
Rilla brought a tight hook to bear on the old man’s jaw, but he didn’t follow it up. The old man staggered back and shook the stars out of his eyes by tossing his head back and forth like a horse. He stood straight, rolled his shoulders back, cracked his neck, and then his knuckles. “You better come at me with more than that, son.” The old man walked closer to Rilla and put his chin out. He tapped it with his finger. “Here. Hard as you can.”
“What is that guy on?” Kenny wondered aloud.
“Rilla is an animal, he’ll cripple him.” Steven nearly danced with excitement.
“PCP is a hell of a drug.”I offered an explanation.
“Really, you think so?” Daniel asked.
“We will find out after this punch.” I chuckled.
Rilla looked around at his audience worriedly. He wasn’t accustomed to being physically challenged. At school, Rilla was the alpha male. He’d been challenged, but never beaten. He was a football star, an A student, and a natural charismatic.
Rilla took a step back and hit the old man with everything he had. His body was wound from the ground up. His hips and shoulders turned with the force of his straight right arm.
The old man staggered back and pulled on his wispy beard before pausing for thought and nodding his head. Without a word, he turned away from Rilla and skulked off into the crowd, which parted around him in silence.
“I can’t believe he just shrugged that off.”
“He took it like a champ.”
“Think he learned a lesson?”
“Who was he anyway?” Daniel asked me. It was assumed that I knew everyone in the hollow from working at the town’s only grocery.
“Never seen him.”
“He’s comin’ back.” Kenny pointed through the trees. The old man was carrying something through the crowd. A girl shrieked before her boyfriend could rip out of the old man’s path.
I squinted, and the old man walked closer. The object in his hand was black, glossy, anodized steel, long and thin, trimmed with bright, nearly orange wood.
“He’s got a gun,” I whispered to no one, too afraid to speak. My throat was dry to cracking into dust.
“What? Speak up Mikey.”
I pointed “He’s…”
The old man smoothly pulled the slide and rammed a bullet into the chamber. He pointed the barrel at Rilla and smiled before jerking the rifle up and firing several rounds into the air.
The muzzle flashed and the boom hit me in the chest and echoed between the mountains. The party erupted and people spilled over one another in an attempt to reach the shelter of the woods. Some ran for their cars, others ducked under the trucks, rolling in the mud. Many froze, standing stone still with their mouths open.
His face was bloomed in red, “you gonna pick on an old man?”
He took stock of those remaining. Rilla had disappeared into the brush. “Not that tough, are ya?” He chuckled and lowered the weapon and looked at the girl standing nearest. He flipped the gun in the air and caught it by the barrel. “Still warm. Don’t worry darlin’ I never killed anyone.”
The old man marched toward the treeline opposite where we hid. He climbed into a wood panel van and drove away.
The remaining, frozen party goers slowly returned to life in the absence of threat. Kenny was the first to break the silent with an enthusiastic “holy shit!.”
“Yeah, think we should go now Kenny?”
“I knew this was a bad idea,” I muttered.
Kenny and I retraced our steps through the woods and the others followed behind. We didn’t say much, opting instead to listen to the ambient conversations of the other groups trudging back to the safety of their cars on the gravel access road to our left.
The car was where we left it, but as its outline came into focus in the dark, two people leaned against the rear bumper and waved at our approach. Kenny was the only one who recognized the shadows.
“Chub?” Kenny waved and shouted. “That Christie with you?”
“Uh huh, yeah, yeah.” The voice shouted back.
Kenny gripped Chub’s hand and hugged Christie in turn. “I didn’t know you all were here.”
“Yeah, yeah! Man that shit was crazy.” Chub was rail thin. His shirt draped loosely over him like a child wearing his father’s clothes. His skin hung low under his chin and cheekbones. His lack of teeth and pock marked skin were evident, even through the thick black. Christie was pale to the point of luminescence and in similar cosmetic condition.
“Yeah, it was. Chub, this is Daniel, Steven and young Mikey.” Kenny reached out like he would pinch my cheek. I swatted him away.
“Fuck.” I whispered to Steven. “I know where this is going.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Chub nodded his head compulsively with every syllable of his speech. “Good to meet ya’ll. Was hopin’ you’d give us a lift out. Buddy o’mine is down where the train tracks meet the highway. Left us when all that went down. He was outta here in a hurry.”
“Called it,” I playfully slapped Steven with the back of my hand and winked. “I call shotgun!” I shouted before I ended up in someone’s lap.
“Bottom of what?” Steven raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, sure we’ll give you a ride,” Kenny said without consulting Daniel.
“Yeah?” Chub continued to nod. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“We’ll just have to double up some.” Kenny offered in accommodation.
“Yeah guys,” Daniel spoke up, “I’ll give you guys a ride out.”
Chub and Christie puzzled over Daniel’s words, looking from Daniel to Kenny and back again.
Christie broke the silence, “thought you said it was Kenny’s car.”
“He told me it was.”
“It’s my car.” Daniel pulled his phone from his pocket and flipped it open. “It’s late, let’s get going.”
Kenny opened the passenger side door and held the seat forward, “Alright Mikey.” Kenny motioned for me to climb in.
“No, no, no.” I shook my head. “I called it.”
“I’m too big to sit in the back.”
“I fail to see what that has to do with this current situation.”
“Oh, look at Mikey with his big words and complicated turns of phrase.” Kenny stuck his pinky out and pretended to drink tea from a delicate cup. “Get in the car Mikey.”
“I’m gonna put this in words you can understand Kenny, and I’m gonna say it slow enough for you to process. I… called… it.”
“He did call it Kenny. It was a fair ‘called it.'” Daniel interjected, wanting to punish Kenny for overstepping.
“Yeah, Kenny. If we can just take back a ‘called it’ any time we don’t like it, where would that leave us?” I crossed my arms and shook my head. “We’re a nation of laws Kenny.”
“Alright. I want to get the fuck out of here.” Daniel opened the drivers door and held the seat open. Chub sat down in the bucket seat and Christie sat in his lap. “Get in Kenny or walk. We’ll wait for you at the head of the tracks. At this point, I don’t really give a fuck either way.”
Kenny grumbled and climbed in the car. Steven rubbed his hands together in faux excitement at the prospect of sitting in Kenny’s lap, “I tell you what Kenny, nothing better poke my ass.”
“Go to hell Steven.”
“I mean, I’m open to experimentation, but I’ve always been more of a pitcher, myself.” Steven ducked his head in the car before deciding to go in feet and rear first. “You know Kenny, I bet you’d clean up real nice. It’s a real shame you couldn’t sit in my lap. Steven went to run his fingers through Kenny’s beard, but Kenny punched him hard in the shoulder.
“Steven, if you don’t shut the fuck up, I swear to God I’m going to murder your skinny ass.”
Steven tisked and shook his head, “I bet you’re just afraid you’d like it.”
I took the passenger seat and looked at Chub and Christie trying to make sense of Steven. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, is this guy actually a fag, or is he just screwing around with you. Cause I ain’t riding around with no queers.”
“Sorry Mr. Chub. You’re not really my type.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Chub reached forward and grabbed Steven by the collar. “You better be careful who you’re talkin’ to.”
Steven’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head, but Kenny put a stiff arm in Chub’s throat, “Let him go.”
Chub loosened his grip. Kenny kept his. “Apologize.”
“Look man, I didn’t mean anything. Jesus.”
“Close enough.” Kenny let him go.
“These guys are crazy.” Christie moaned. “I don’t want to ride in here.”
Chub ignored her, but she persisted until he told her she could either ride in the car or walk the tracks alone. She didn’t speak again the entirety of the long ride back.
Daniel drove much slower than Kenny, barely moving the car faster than it would idle in first gear. The ballast stones still bounced and thudded off the bottom of the car, but with less regularity. Periodically, we would pass other stranded partiers walking along the tracks. They staggered through the pale headlights like ghosts, unsure of their movements. Some begged for a ride, and as we crawled by, they kicked, struck, and shouted at the car.