My friends and I stood in the driveway talking some dumb shit while the owner’s trailer rattled with reggaeton, and down in the yard people laughed and spoke Spanish around a bonfire. The doublewide, which belonged to one of Eli’s skater friends, was one of those lost in the maze of dirt roads behind Star Lake. There were no street lights and everything was black, an extension of the night sky, except for the fire, the windows, and a single porch bulb. Earlier that night, we had been drinking and listening to music in Eli’s shed, just the four of us in our cinder-block hangout. Then Eli received an invite text. He urged us to go, for the girls, for the alcohol, for the backwoods networking of it all, but there we were on the fringe of the party, outsiders in the dark. There was a cooler of beer and a couch back at Eli’s shed, and I wondered why we ever left.
“You couldn’t kill one hyena with a bat,” Eli said, “let alone four.” His sharp, pale face hovered above his body, his black trench coat, black skinny jeans, and black Vans nearly nonexistent in the dark. He sipped from his flask and scowled.
“Yes, I could,” Braxton said. He was almost grinning, in full bullshit mode. “You hit the first one in the head, crush the skull, then you’re ready to swing again before the other three move in.” He already had a few beers in his caveman body, one that he claimed was medically assessed as big-boned. True or not, those bones helped earn him a spot on the school baseball team, the towering first baseman, nearly double Eli’s size.
Roddy, my brother, erupted with laughter, pushing Eli and Braxton’s debate. He wore his JNCO jeans and Yanni shirt, and his silver chains hung heavy on his neck. Each chain had been measured an inch apart from the next to lay on his chest like decorative chainmail. His ironic attire demanded a tilt of the head and the question why, which I think was the point, seeing as how he was my little brother and his look helped fill his attention void.
I was standing in the circle too but my buzz was fading and with it my usual enthusiasm for absurd hypotheticals. Everything felt far away, especially the keg which had been moved inside. Those by the fire glanced our way every now and then and it made me overly aware of how strange my presence was: I didn’t know a soul. I’d worn my slippers because I wanted to seem aloof, but they were just making my feet sweat.
While we were talking, Oscar Arroyo stumbled through the front door, shirt off and pants sagging. He pulled a half-burned Black and Mild from behind his ear and fumbled with his lighter. Swaying there beneath the bright porch light, his neck tattoos looked like black veins and his head scars shined, but he was smaller than I’d remembered. He seemed lost in his baggy pants.
I didn’t know Oscar, not really, but I recognized him from other parties. He always skulked by the cars and smoked weed with his buddies until they fell silent, all members of the so-called gang Ready for War. People could be pumping kegs and flinging themselves down a slip and slide, but if you turned toward the woods, you could count on seeing Oscar’s blunt—and a dozen others—burning in the dark. As far as I could tell, they only did two things: post pictures of themselves smoking weed on Myspace and spraypaint “RFW” on foreclosed homes and street signs. I’d heard stories that they often started fist fights, but even so I thought they took themselves too seriously for a group who couldn’t live up to their imposing name. “Guys,” Oscar said.
“Guys. Guys.” We turned to him, surprised he could muster words through his fuckedupness and startled he would talk to us in the first place. “Quiet down,” he said, raising a finger to his lips.
Our eyebrows knotted. Did he shush the four of us like we were toddlers? We fell silent. My phone said it was still early, just after eleven. Oscar must’ve already been drunk out of his mind. He wouldn’t remember his actions by morning, so we turned our backs and continued our conversation about the hyenas and the bat and the broken skulls.
“Are you deaf?” Oscar said. “There’s a kid sleeping in the car.” His voice gained weight, words carrying through the dark. People looked up at us from the fire. They peeked through the blinds.
He pointed to a rust and Bondo Cutlass Supreme parked beside us. Old-car smell wafted through the open windows. There couldn’t possibly be a child sleeping in there, unattended in the dark. While Eli tried to calm Oscar down, I stepped over and peered through the window: McDonald’s trash, dirty clothes, beer cans, but no child.
“Puta,” blurted Oscar, pointing. He clomped down the porch steps and stumbled over until I could smell the honey-flavored tobacco on his breath. “Who said you could look in there?”
“There’s no kid,” I said, confused.
“So?” He stepped forward until his forehead nearly touched my chin. I turned to ignore him but he remained in my face.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” I said. “You tell us to be quiet because there’s a kid sleeping in the car, but there is no kid sleeping in the car.”
“Fuck outta here,” he said, pointing to the road. From where I stood, my face craned over his, I noticed his teeth were chipped and his skin—scarred presumably from years of brawling—seemed older than it should have. He puffed his Black and Mild though it had gone out, and while he did I almost felt my own scars, one on my nose from chickenpox, and one on my forehead from playing dodgeball with pinecones. The contrast between us was sobering.
“Is he serious?” Braxton asked. The grin on his face was still there, but his eyes narrowed and his hands curled into fists. Braxton was nearly double Oscar’s size, too. It was reassuring to have him there but he made me feel small, like I needed to be protected.
“Get ’em, Oscar,” someone yelled from the fire. People laughed. The reggaeton seemed to grow louder.
Eli grabbed my sleeve and nodded toward the yard. “Look,” he said. Faces, some smiling and some stony, stared in our direction. Faces by the fire, faces in the windows, faces barely catching light on the yard’s edge. They wanted a fight.
“Pussies,” Oscar said, jaw up and shoulders back.
“Let’s just take a deep breath,” said Roddy. His silver chains caught the light of the fire. I feared that someone might try to snatch them from his neck.
Oscar appeared to think for a moment, but nothing came of it. “Bro,” he said, pointing toward the pitch black road where we’d parked.
Eli texted his skater friend to come settle things. All the faces in the yard waited motionless and blood thirsty. We could take Oscar, but not the entire party. I glanced toward the car several times, knowing it would be easy to simply leave. But the front door of the trailer inched open and Eli’s friend stepped onto the porch, a skinny kid wearing ripped jeans and chunky skate shoes. He nervously cleared his throat and approached Oscar.
“Take it easy, Big Dog,” he said, massaging Oscar’s shoulders. “They’re cool.”
Oscar turned and jabbed the kid in the chest with his finger. “You want to go with them?” he said. “You want to go home with the gringos?”
Eli’s friend cast us a nervous look. “Let’s talk about this inside,” he said. He tried to guide Oscar indoors, but Oscar resisted, pulling his sagging jeans onto his waist and tightening his belt. I’d seen dozens of fights at school—in the cafeteria, the gym, the bus loop—and all of them had begun with the combatants securing their loose clothing.
I started to tremble. A wave of nausea hit me, then my knees shook and I could barely stand. My father often told me and my brother stories of his own fights. He’d have a few beers and reminisce about his glory days, all of his gruesome wins and losses. He was a tough guy, and I was his son, but my body wasn’t ready. I’d heard adrenaline could manifest itself in strange ways. That’s what it was. Adrenaline. I was drunk with it.
“Get your faggot asses out of here,” Oscar yelled. He stumbled forward, his eyes unfocused and heavy. Someone cheered, a lengthy yipping that sent the neighborhood dogs howling. Eli’s friend could only watch us.
“This isn’t worth it,” I said. “He’s already killed my buzz.” I tried to sound cool and calm, as if I wasn’t eyeing the crowd by the fire, as if I wasn’t feeling like a pussy. Eli, Braxton, and Roddy agreed. We waved Oscar off and retreated to the car, the clay kicking up into my slippers and Oscar cursing after us in Spanish.
Roddy drove us home. We briefly laughed about how drunk Oscar was, then the rattling of the car over the washboard roads made us turn inward. Eli tried to light a cigarette with his Zippo but somehow spilled fluid on his jacket. We put the windows down to air the fumes. I tried to remind myself that we’d done the smart thing, but I couldn’t shake the realization that we’d been punked.
And there was my father, the Busch Light-drinking, Nascar-watching, Harley-riding man he is, and his fighting stories. The roommate’s face he disfigured by raking it across the edge of a desk. The guy’s nose he broke at a bar. The heart-punch he took from a farm boy that damn near killed him. These were moments of pride for him. When he told us these stories, he had a look in his eye that asked if Roddy and I had our own stories to tell. I once punched a guy at school because he pushed me down during touch football, but I apologized immediately. Oscar’s face haunted me, and I wondered if I should have hit him, if not for my own pride then for my father’s.
We pulled into Eli’s driveway where the night had started. His mom’s car was not there, and for that I was grateful. She overindulged when she partied—which was nightly—and would often battle Eli over stupid shit, her voice gravelly, her mouth sneering. If Eli didn’t have the shed I figured he would’ve left, maybe moved to California like his father did a few years back.
Eli opened the shed door, and we were welcomed by the smell of cooler water and damp brick. Our ice had melted, but the beers—the ones Braxton’s cousin bought for us the other day—were still cold. I grabbed one and sat defeated on the couch.
“Well, that sucked,” I said.
“I don’t know what his problem was,” said Eli. “We were invited.” He plugged his iPod into the speakers and scrolled through his songs.
“Too drunk,” said Braxton. “I mean, I could’ve taken him, but the others—”
“A bunch of hyenas,” said Roddy. “I wish you had your bat.” The weight of the night eased for a moment. We stared off while the scrolling of Eli’s iPod ticked through the speakers.
“I think I’m going to head out,” Roddy said with a yawn.
“I guess I will too,” said Braxton. “I have a plate of leftovers waiting for me.”
I was sad the night would end with us splitting ways, but I wasn’t surprised. We had our own wounds to lick. We all said goodbye. I had my car there, so I planned to stay the night. I couldn’t face going home, back into my room with my father sitting stoically on the couch. When Braxton and Roddy left, I kicked my legs up and Eli finally settled on a song.
“I feel shitty,” I said, my face toward the ceiling. A spider was wrapping up a moth directly above me.
“We got bitched out, didn’t we?” Eli said. He sipped from his flask.
“Feels like it. I mean, the whole party was going to jump in though, right?”
“Probably. We played it smart.”
A rap beat rolled out of the speakers. The kicks and snares pushed me, pushed something into my spirit.
“Fuck those guys.”
Eli nodded along with the music. “RFW ain’t shit. They claim they’re a gang but they really ain’t legit.”
I laughed, sat up, and waited for the loop to come around. “Ready for War? More like Ready for Weiners. I heard they like to give each other Cleveland Steamers.”
We went back and forth, laughing and freestyling, feeling the night snowballing into something greater. And phrase by phrase I felt bigger, and judging by the veins bulging in Eli’s neck and the smile on his face, he did too. The beat faded out and Eli pressed pause at the silence.
“We need to record this,” he said.
I chugged the rest of my beer, crushed the can, and tossed it to the cement floor. “Let’s do it.” I thought again of the dozens of faces staring at us, all RFW members. “I mean, we don’t want them to know it’s us, though, right?”
“There’s a voice changer on Garage Band,” he said. He sipped deeply from his flask. He grimaced through the burn. He watched a cockroach skitter across the floor. “We can be whoever we want to be.”
I opened a second beer and just the sound of it was energizing. “We change our voices, record the song, then what?” I asked. “How do we get it out there?”
Eli’s eyes went starry. “A fake Myspace group,” he said. “It’s perfect. We could make our own gang, get photos from the internet, make this real.”
I was not embarrassed by my giddiness. He handed me a pen and a notepad and we brainstormed group names: Brutal Boys, Stoner Bros, etc. We were running out of paper and ideas when Eli blurted out Slice ’n Splice. I wasn’t sure what it meant, presumably something with car stereos, but I didn’t care. It sounded cool in a funny, believable way.
We Googled “wiggers” and scrolled through the pages of knobbly white kids wearing chains and sideways hats, throwing indiscernible hand gestures at the camera. We settled on a duo from page five. They wore generic brand jerseys and squatted in front of a beat-up Honda Civic. Their bands of silver chains glistened in the sun. One of them wore orange zip-off pants. The other had frosted tips. We joked that Roddy, with his silver chains and baggy jeans, looked almost as goofy. They were perfect.
I watched Eli fly through the Myspace creation, uploading the photos we had of these strangers’ photo shoot. When the page was ready, we found one of the beats we’d made in the past, something simple with a sampled funk line and heavy bass. We wrote until sunrise, scrapping lines here and there and stacking beer cans until we felt that the night had been rectified.
The following week, school buzzed with news of the RFW diss. People followed and shared Slice ’n Splice’s Myspace page so rapidly that Eli and I soon failed to recognize many of the names on the notifications. Between classes, we heard peers talking, their voices hushed and eager, about this strange new duo. Who were they? Where did they come from? It was like this song had been dropped from the sky, a boon for those who hadn’t been able to express their dislike for RFW and, at the very least, a prod in the flank of a boring town. RFW had finally earned itself a rival: a deep-voiced duo with questionable fashion sense and words that got people riled.
RFW didn’t take long to retaliate. They had to. Their collective pride was on the line, which appeared to be all they valued anyways, their unit of currency. By the end of the week, one of RFW’s members, Genesis—a kid I once sat behind in geometry—posted a track featuring several of his friends on Myspace. I waited until I was in Eli’s shed to listen, just the two of us crowding the speakers and sharing the remains of a bottle of Canadian LTD his mother had “misplaced.”
Eli pressed play. I listened. They did not produce their own beat. In fact, they stole the “I Got Five On It” beat from Luniz, probably ripped the instrumental from YouTube. The lyrics were garbled and warbly, nearly impossible to understand. Something about a small penis. Something about being gay. Eli and I laughed at their weak attempt at revenge. We reclined like kings in our plastic chairs. I imagined the conversations I’d overhear in the school hallways and felt euphoric.
“Eli?” There was a knock on the door, then a patter and drag of fingernails.
Eli jerked at the sound of his mother’s voice.
She tried the doorknob but it was locked. “Are you okay?”
“What do you want?”
“I rented some movies from DJ Video,” she said, a little slurred. “I got Clerks.”
“Okay?” said Eli.
“I thought maybe you’d want to watch,” she said. “Get you out of this windowless box for a bit.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m busy, though.”
“But Clerks is your favorite.”
“It’s on Comedy Central all the time. You shouldn’t have wasted your money.”
“Well, whenever you get a job you’ll understand that not all purchases are ‘wastes of money’.” She sounded like her mouth was pressed against the door.
Eli did not have a job, but he did have money. He had a talent for scamming people at school: fixing dice throws, rigging decks, typical sleight of hand shit. Kids would gamble in the hallways between classes or in the courtyard during lunch and Eli would always leave in the black. He was a trickster, a classic trickster, and I’m surprised nobody caught on just by looking him in his shifty eyes.
“Look at your father,” she said. “He never had a real job, and he never even took me on a date.”
Eli muttered, “Probably because you’re annoying when you’re drunk.” He clicked through Genesis’s Myspace pictures. Genesis flicking off the camera. Genesis flicking off the camera with his friends. Genesis spreading his life savings across the floor. Genesis screaming, his jaw wide enough to threaten dislocation. Eli saved the last photo to his desktop.
“Got a crush?” I asked him.
“Watch this,” he said.
Eli’s mother slid her back against the door as she sat outside in the dark. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll make popcorn.”
I was several beers deep, so my stomach growled at the mere mention of popcorn and hot butter, but Eli said, “No thanks. Not hungry.”
He opened Photoshop and loaded in the picture of Genesis. He then googled “monster cocks” and saved the photo of what might as well have been a Pringles can wrapped in veiny flesh. I covered my eyes and recoiled, but Eli clicked furiously. When I looked again, Genesis was blowing the largest penis I’d ever seen.
“Holy fuck,” I said. It looked real. The lighting, the proportions, everything. “You’re going to post it?”
“Damn right,” he said.
I covered the screen with my hands. “Do you think we should?” I asked him. “Isn’t it illegal? Defamation of character or something?”
“RFW deserves it,” he said. He flicked his Zippo and touched the flame to a dried beetle on the table. “Plus it’s funny.”
“Genesis might not deserve it,” I said.
“He’s a part of their group, right?”
“You remember how they humiliated us, right?” he said. He leaned toward the screen, his hand an eager claw on the mouse. “It’s only fair. They started it.”
My gut writhed as I watched Eli upload the picture to Myspace. I thought of my dad and what he would do if he were standing beside us, his oldest son looking at dicks on the internet with his friend, both of them fighting a long-distance battle, safe behind closed doors and fake names. He would be ashamed that we weren’t handling our problems like men, even if we weren’t the most experienced fighters. Where was our dignity? Where was our strength? I felt pathetic, and it manifested itself as shallow breathing and restless legs.
Eli must’ve noticed that I was bothered. “Remember,” he said, “it’s just penis-colored pixels.”
“I can’t watch all these movies alone,” said Eli’s mother.
Outside, she tapped an empty glass bottle against the cement pavers. I stared at the cracks in the shed floor. I almost felt sorry for her, but Eli’s indifference assured me their tension was normal.
“I’m going inside,” she said.
I heard a loud, slow breath.
“Maybe I’ll watch the movie myself,” she said.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she said.
“Good night, Mrs. Tulley,” I said.
Silence followed, then, most likely influenced by my politeness, Eli wished his mother good night too. Then it was the sound of flip flops slipping over pine needles and slapping dirty heels.
At school, people did not respond to the photo like they did the song. “Who were these sick fucks?” they asked. The tides shifted, and there was a general air of siding with Genesis, a school-wide arm draped over his shoulder. Printouts of the obscene photo had been wedged into the crack of his locker and tucked beneath his windshield wipers, but they’d been swiftly removed. I mostly kept to myself that week, but when I got the chance, from across a hallway or the parking lot, I watched RFW huddle and whisper, their eyes smoldering and flashing like embers popping from a fire.
Eli called me Friday night. I was playing old Nintendo games with Roddy. “They want to fight,” he said. He was laughing. He read me the Myspace message. “Meet at the Kangaroo gas station. We’re going to fuck you up.”
The Kangaroo was always busy because they sold beer twenty-four seven. Frat guys from the University of Florida often drove the forty minutes to buy beer when it was late, and the locals, many of them hopeless alcoholics in cut-offs and jiffy feet, never seemed to leave. It was the gem of Melrose.
I paused the game and set my controller down. “Did you respond?”
“I told them Slice ’n Splice will be there,” he said. “Talked some shit, too.”
“I was thinking it’d be funny to walk by,” he said. “See them waiting in the parking lot. Maybe grab some sodas and snacks and hang at the shed.”
“Is Braxton going?”
“He said he was busy. Why? You scared?”
I wanted Braxton’s mass for protection. “Whatever.”
I pressed the phone to my shoulder and asked Roddy if he wanted to go. He thought it sounded entertaining. I told Eli we were on our way then hung up. Roddy put on his chains, then we slipped our shoes on at the front door. Mom was on the phone in her room. Dad was on the couch, his corner of the living room so dark I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or awake.