Out in the Cold
So it’s 1974 and I’m 17 and I’m nothing more than that dumb and dangerous caricature called the angry young white male.
Summer is worst. Don’t ask me why. You would think the school year would be the worst. One more year in The Mill called high school and I’m ready to take my place as a productive member of Society. A-yup.
This is the first time I’ve written a story. If you call this a story. I got the idea from this substitute English teacher who tried to get us all to write what she called “slice of life” stories. Give me a fucking break. I just want to get something out. But if writing down some slice of your life keeps angry young men from axe-murdering their biology teachers or quitting senior year of high school to join the army so they can kill people without going to jail for it then I’ve no problem with it. A-yup.
So I always carry a knife, a folding knife with a four-inch blade. It’s a Buck knife, a well-made knife. I understand how knives can fascinate some people the way some people are fascinated by snakes. But I’m not fascinated by knives or snakes. I carry a knife because it’s useful. I spend a lot of time in the woods camping and have built some shelters that no one knows about and spent days and nights in them just to get away, you know? Just to get away.
I’m supposed to register for the draft for “selective service.” Have you ever in your fucking life heard anything so perfectly named? They select the guys in jeans and flannel shirts with knives in sheaths on their leather belts so the guys in khakis and sweaters who seem to sweat cologne and genuinely look up to the school’s guidance counselors can go to college and someday get to select the guys in jeans and flannel shirts to go kill people. You get the idea. In this here theater we call Society my friends costume is character.
Don’t worry from here on I’ll be a lot less philosophic, sophomoric, moronic. Right. Right. Reminds me of the joke, How does a guy say fuck you? Answer: Trust me!
Doesn’t matter where in this country you grow up, it’s all the same movie, different costumes. But the good thing about growing up in Maine? I could practically crawl to Canada. They come selecting me—I’m gone. Yeah. I’ll leave a note though. Carefully written. Maybe even typed. But what would it say? Fuck you of course. And I promised not to be moronic didn’t I? Trust me!
Okay. So I’m an angry young man and I’ve got a motorcycle. Not a big one. Sure it’ll go 80 when you wind it out but when the tachometer is redlining it sounds like a snot-nosed seven-year-old complaining that you changed the television channel during his favorite after-school cartoon. A-yup.
Here’s the thing. I’m zinging down I-95 no helmet because the law doesn’t require me to wear a helmet even though it would probably be a smart thing to wear one not for it being a brain bucket if you crash but because the visor would keep the blast of wind off your eyes and improve your vision enough so it wasn’t a watery blur of landscape you were zooming through. And I’ve got a friend Chris on the seat behind me and we’re on our way to a house party and it’s the middle of a warm summer afternoon and as we’re zinging along maybe 70-something-miles-per-hour and I see two guys up on the overpass ahead and I know, I know instantly, just what they are doing.
They’re throwing rocks at cars.
I see them see me. They light up with joy the fucks. A motorcycle! I know what’s coming. But did I tell you I’m doing seventy-something and Chris is on the backseat oblivious to it all and did I mention how uptight I always am or can you just tell? A-yup.
There are cars all around me and I’ve got to stay off the oil strip in the center of the lane. Really all I can do is try to guess which side of my lane those two shits on the overpass are going to throw the stones on. Even as I’m dealing with all this I’m watching them gleefully hopping up to the railing along the concrete side of the bridge with their hands balled up holding dirt and stones. And believe it or not my mind just goes wandering off and I wonder did they bring a supply of stones to the overpass or are they just scooping up whatever is along the road? As if it fucking mattered?
This is all taking two seconds to happen. No exaggeration. Count it. One one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Bam.
They throw their handfuls of gravel and dirt across the whole lane so it wouldn’t have mattered if I eased right or left.
At that speed it’s over in a split-second but in my mind it’s like watching a ten-minute movie stuffed with details and close-ups then distant shots like there’s nothing else going on in the entire fucking world except this.
I see the flume of gray sand and at the same instant I feel it scrape into my face. I hear some stones hit the bike’s metal rapidly like it’s a burst of machinegun fire and some bigger stones bang off the hood of the car in the lane beside us and I go cold.
I go cold. I can feel the warm of the sun and smell the hot tar of the highway but inside me it’s so silent and empty I imagine I’m deep in the woods somewhere just hearing that low roar of the wind in the trees that is always there if you listen close. But even all that is separate and far away inside me. It’s not like I’m shivering cold you know? Maybe cool is a better word for it. It’s more like how when you step into a stream of water up in the mountains it doesn’t feel all that cold just cool but if you stood in that water fifteen minutes they’d have to amputate your toes. A-yup.
Chris never saw any of it coming. He yells “What the fuck!” as I try to keep us from falling. It’s not easy when you see a big hit coming straight for your face and all you can do is to keep the bike straight and duck your face as the pebbles and sand smack into you. “What the fuck!” Chris yells again but this time he has enough sense to not put any body English into it. The bike wobbles like one of the old drunks coming out of the dark inside Buzzy’s Tavern smack into the afternoon sunlight. I don’t say anything somehow just relax and do whatever it takes without thinking about it to keep the bike upright and even as I’m doing it I have this serious feeling like I don’t want to say another word the rest of my fucking time on earth.
I can feel Chris put together what just happened and for confirmation I feel his weight shift as he leans backward and I see in my rearview mirrors him giving the finger to the two shits on the overpass as he yells his curses. But his anger isn’t anything. Not like mine. Some guys you can tell they’re talking themselves out of being angry the way they swear—like reciting a list. Fuck this shit that your mother this your sister that. It’s almost like a prayer or a mantra thing or something. What’s the word? A litany? They recite a litany which is just a fancy word for a list, right? Thank you God for that year in parochial school. Where the fuck would I be without it? When you get to know some guys you get to know their personal list.
In my right rearview mirror I can see the two guys up on the overpass and I swear it’s like looking at a cartoon with the taller guy pointing at us and doing a belly-laugh and the shorter one slapping him on the back. A fucking cartoon. A-yup.
And all of this took place in two seconds. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. No exaggeration.
A quarter mile along the highway after a long bend with trees I knew were covering us even if the two shits were still watching which I doubt they were I shot down the exit.
“Hey. Where you going?” Chris hollers, his hands coming onto my back to brace himself as I braked hard but did not stop at the end of the exit ramp just leaning and flowing into a steep right turn and seeing in my mind an exact map of streets that would take me back to the overpass.
I didn’t say anything.
Chris yelled, “Fuck it. They aren’t going to be there waiting for the cops or someone to kick their asses. Let’s just go to the party okay?”
I didn’t say anything. I knew they would be there right there on the bridge they were that stupid.
Maybe three minutes later after doubling back on the side roads we ride across the overpass and sure enough the two dumb shits are still there leaned over the railings and staring down onto the traffic and not paying any attention to some old pickup truck with a bad muffler and us passing right behind them. This may sound strange but I knew in advance that it would be just like that. I had been seeing in my mind everything that was going to happen and it was all playing out that exact way just flowing from one thing to the next thing. Just flowing.
I pulled over onto the driveway of some house driving the bike right up close to a couple of old birch trees near a stone wall. I shut off the engine and put the key in my pocket and took my knife from its sheath on my belt and unfolded its blade and checked the lock so the blade wouldn’t fold back on my hand. Just like that just flowing from one thing to the next thing.
I put the knife opened like that into the right front pocket of my jeans keeping my hand on it and started walking with my hands in my jeans pockets looking like I was out for a mid-day stroll getting myself a little fresh air no particular place to go. A-yup.
“What are you doing?” Chris said. His voice was too loud as if we were still on the motorcycle.
I didn’t answer.
“What the fuck,” he said quieter now while jogging up beside me.
I could have asked Chris, “You got a knife?” But of course I knew he did right in the black sheath on the leather belt of his jeans. You see what I mean about costumes? It was like Chris and me were wearing uniforms; regulation tan work boots, regulation jeans, regulation black tee shirts under regulation flannel shirts with regulation folding knives in sheathes on regulation wide leather belts. And if our luck was bad the next uniform we’d both be wearing would be military camouflage or maybe worse the overalls the guys who drive the trucks to deliver oil for your furnace wear.
Chris asked, “What’re you going to do?” Now he was whispering as if the two dumb shits a hundred yards ahead might hear him. He stopped walking like he was waiting for me to answer.
I kept walking. That coldness was still all over me like I had fallen into a deep lake. I didn’t care if Chris was coming or getting his knife out or what. I was ready to take on both the dumb fucks.
I came around the bend and heard Chris jogging to catch up to me. We were on the same side of the road as the two goons on the bridge were. Still leaning over the metal rail they were talking the way friends do leaning their heads close together. The dumb fucks even noticed us and looked over at us for a moment. I was careful not to look directly at them. And they didn’t connect us to the two guys on the motorcycle the highlight of their fucking afternoon that they were still laughing about.
“Fucking assholes,” Chris muttered reciting his list to get himself psyched and angry.
And the rest just played out like a dream or like a script for a bad movie or worse like fucking television.
I grabbed the big one. He was my age but bigger than me by four or five inches. I spun him around with my left hand by grabbing his upper arm. As he came around to face me I moved my left hand onto his chest and grabbed a wad of shirt. Flannel shirt of course.
I spun him back against the railing and had my knife at his throat. Simple. Like I’d been practicing to do it all my life. There were some soft black whiskers on his chin like he wasn’t a regular shaver yet.
“Big fucking joke dropping stones on people?” My voice sounded friendly believe it or not like I wasn’t at all angry and just asking an ordinary every day question not like my left hand was grabbing his shirt and my right was holding a knife tight up under his chin with my knuckles the only thing keeping the cutting edge from his throat.
It was the first and so far the only time I ever saw terror in someone. I’ve been afraid and I’ve seen people afraid. This guy was terrified. He thought I was about to slit his throat. And here’s the thing: I hated it. I hated seeing that look on his face. I hated that I was causing that look. Under that cold that was separating me from this big dumb shit and the rest of the world I felt ugly as sin.
I was aware right then of hearing Chris echoing my words to the smaller guy. “Big fucking joke dropping shit on people?” Only Chris’s tensed-up voice broke on the word ‘people’ and I again had that sensation like I was trapped in a bad television show.
The ugly feeling deepened. Maybe I was embarrassed. I wished I was alone.
“Answer,” I said to the guy I was holding and I still sounded so casual like I was a teacher and him a dull student.
“Not a joke,” he said. His body shook once and for a second I thought he was trying to break free. But he was only gasping for air. “Not a joke,” he said again.
And that’s when I saw him change. Maybe he started to think I wasn’t going to cut him. Maybe he was just embarrassed that a guy half a foot shorter than him was holding him still. But it wasn’t that at all. He was getting angry. I could actually see the anger come into his face.
And that was what I wanted.
I closed my hand tight on the handle of my knife making a fist around the handle and keeping the blade turned toward him. I punched his face. He could see the knife and my fist smashing right into his face and he couldn’t do anything but watch it coming. If he moved he would get cut bad.
His anger or defiance or whatever it was evaporated. His eyes got small. All those actors making big eyes to show their character is afraid is just bullshit don’t believe it. His eyes got small. It was like he was trying to make his whole body as small as he could. He tried to pull away but I yanked him back my left hand locked on that bunch of flannel shirt. I kept the blade right in front of his face the whole time. Then I smashed my fist into his face. Three times. Hard and careful of my aim and careful to keep the blade edge toward him. Punch. Get set. Punch. Get set. Punch.
I was aware of scuffling at my side and knew that the guy Chris had pinned had gotten loose. But he didn’t come to help his big friend. He ran away down the sidewalk of the bridge swearing at Chris and me but running until he was safe on the road before stopping and turning. I knew this because when I heard the scuffling I spun the guy I held around like he weighed three pounds so I could see what was going on behind me.
The little shit stood out in the road and screamed at me, “Let him go!”
I said, “Okay.”
Just like that. Real casual. And that shut him up. But then his mouth dropped open like he was a stupid fucking mime as he watched me set myself again and smash my fist into his friend’s face one more time.
The wet cracking sound of that last punch made me wonder if the nose he had now was going to be the one he’d be wearing the rest of his life.
With my left hand I spun him around shoving him away from me. And in some twisted inspiration as his back was turned toward me I kicked him in his ass. The force of the kick knocked him forward and he almost fell sprawled face down on the sidewalk but managed to get his hands down to break his fall. He scramble up in a dead run toward his friend in the street. I must have been laughing inside because I was thinking how guys were always talking about kicking someone’s ass and how I always thought the expression was stupid and here I was kicking someone’s ass. I was a fucking cartoon character now just like them. I felt like I could have punched my fist right through the concrete wall of the bridge. I was just a cartoon character in a cartoon world. A-yup.
He didn’t stop running until he was fifty yards or so away from me. He kept looking back over his shoulder threatening me swearing at me even as he kept walking away from me. I walked toward him. Each time he turned to scream at me I saw the blood pump from his nose and one time he coughed and spat it out after swallowing some of it. I was intrigued how the blood looked thick and also watery at the same time. There was a lot of it on my hand and I wiped it onto my jeans even while still holding the opened knife as they guy was working through his list of curses and I was in serious danger of laughing out loud. I wasn’t angry at him anymore now. Yet I could have happily smashed his face a dozen more times.
As he screamed at me I stared at him and said nothing. Which means I said fuck you the way it should be said.
We got back to my bike and I started it up and Chris got on behind me. I turned the bike around and accelerated smoothly flowing back the way we had come and I saw in my rearview mirror that once we were turned the two shits grabbed rocks from the roadside and threw them at us.
I was wishing I was somewhere far away and alone.
I don’t know how to explain it. It was like the cool in me had become real cold now freezing cold now and some voice inside was yelling to step the fuck out of the stream right now or they are going to have to amputate your feet. I was feeling lonely and ugly and fucking ridiculous. There’s your slice of life. I ached to be somewhere in the woods alone just sitting on a rock near a fast stream and hearing the soft roar of the wind in the pine trees and knowing I wouldn’t see anyone wouldn’t see or have to talk to another person so long as I stayed still and quiet right there on the rock by the stream rushing past me.