Saturday, December 28, 2013

Clare - Keys to the Kingdom


His hand passed over a desk-sized mountain of memorabilia, walls covered with a hundred more. In his office, he should have been so supreme. For here he made deals and steered the finances of his family. Here he ruined them, and in silence, dwelled alone.

He looked over the stacks of papers, the bills, the notices collectors have served him. He no longer thought about what they said. He knew, as he knew what he had to do.

He cannot help but look over the accomplishments of his life. There, he hung them on his walls. An art degree he never followed, another life. An old dream. The more prominent signatories show his later accomplishments. An MBA from some midwestern city. More local certificates. A homeowners association. Some pictures of himself. Looking younger, then older, but all the same. Shaking the hand of someone. Smiles all around.

He looked one last time at the mess on his desk. A mass of letterheads, unopened mail, pens and pencils. The state of stress. They represented the last attempt to find success, to stave off the disaster. To fix a mistake he made, and now buried him, he needed a face from the ancient galley, the optimism he had used so many times before. But the confidence was gone. He could no longer manage it. And when he came to this conclusion, he came to another. His admission had brought him to this point.

The gun is a trophy. It represented days with older friends, now dead. When he would hunt, or give the semblance of pretend. When the wilderness still had that regenerative appeal. When like other myths, ideas owned real power.

No longer. With scared hands he held the gun to his head. He fumbled his index finger through the loophole. Before he could lose the nerve, he put it on the trigger, and the defect of the gun showed up again. The premature shot sacred him. But he didn’t have to worry about his bowels voiding. The top of his head exploded and hit the wall, the part of the wall he refused to look at. If he had, he might have seen the faces of the living that looked back upon him, the faces he would leave behind to inherit the kingdom, not of bone and brain and blood, but of family. The ruin of the family.

A picture of a family from happier times hung with human gore, and a face that could have been his from younger days stared back. A young boy, on the cusp of manhood, has been given the keys to the kingdom.

***

The kid sweated underneath a plastic mask that depicted a gray haired, wrinkled thing. With little discomfort, even barely able to see anything, he drummed with a passion and didn't miss a beat. 

He'd always had a knack for the beat. His sister told him a story once, said he used to bang on the side of his crib and always in perfect time. He never believed it. But he somehow knew it was true. He's always had a beat, could keep the beat, and could be counted on to keep the beat when others could not, nor wanted to.

His band swirled around him with electric passion. They were a blur to him. He could just make out their shapes, if at all. They moved too fast, he moved too fast - it was all
frenetic now.

Polyphonic noise shattered the air. There were moments when the sounds came together, then ended in a shriek of feedback and guttural voices. Silence, until a transformation into human voices and the band in a mighty chorus. The abeyance to melody. 

It was all just controlled chaos, anyways. The two boys with guitars and the singer with all-eyes upon them - they were merely the moths to the flame, zigging this way and that. The drums held the chaos together. 

The kid in the plastic mask held the song in his hands. Always content to sit in the background, yet always in the thick of the action. He had never really thought about his importance. He just wanted to keep the beat because the beat had to be kept. Someone had to do it. If not him, then who?

***

He didn't look at the crowd. Even if he had, he still wouldn't have seen beyond the slamming and crowding that always engulfed these culter shows. The kids wrestled and jumped and collided with one another in a frantic attempt to keep pace with the beats-per-minute.

On the edge of human maelstrom a girl stood, dark hair tied back in a ponytail. In her hands were flyers that she handed to kids in the club. If she'd wore identical plumage, she would've blended into this scene. But she didn't belong, neither did the friends beside her. Flyers passed from their hands. They went out of their way to make themselves seen.

At first no one noticed or cared.

Experts on youth culture would've had a field day here. Amidst the pageantry and peacocks with colored hair, some wearing president masks like the one Andrew wore now, more representatives of the era arrived. Two youths in bomber jackets and razor-cut hair. They swaggered. And when they collided with others, they jostled with pride. Others were quick not to bother. The two youths wore identical boots laced to the tops. Where their fists stand clenched, metal glinted and intimidated.

After a few shouts from angry youths who resisted their advances, the two toughs moved towards the edge of the dance floor. They shook their heads at the kids who danced, they laughed at the music and the band on stage. Something on the gummed-up floor caught one of their eyes. A flyer. Upon retrieval, he showed it to the other. Alarm looks went across their faces. They searched the crowd to locate the source of the flyers. Successful, they descended upon the girls.

***

A lull in the music awakened Andrew to the tumult on the floor. He pulled the President Harrison mask halfway up his head and got a better look. A murmur disapproval pulsed through the crowd, and he, like the rest of his band, couldn't help but notice. Trouble on the dance floor. They didn't launch into the next song. With their instruments at their sides, members of Andrew's band moved towards the edge of a stage that was not really a stage at all. For nothing separated them from the audience.

Andrew got up from his stool and left the enclave of his drum kit. He was the last of the band to walk towards the edge of the stage. He peered into the crowd, next to him, the bass player. Tall and lanky, not like Andrew.

-Pretty mellow music to be fighting in the pit? Someone handing out crank?-

The bass player, Colin, shrugged.

-Skinz, it looks like. They're giving some girls a tough time.-

When he knew what to look for, Andrew saw clearly. Indeed. Skin-Secters in the club. It'd been a while. Fuck the truce.

-When are these people ever going to take 'no' for an answer?-

Andrew stared into the crowd. It was one of the smallest clubs in Los Robles and Andrew could see everything. The crowd moved to encircle the two Skin-Secters. They yelled at the toughs. But no one went beyond that.

He could also a girl next to a tough. She had long brown hair tied behind her head. Andrew cocked his head and squinted his eyes for a better look. He tilted his head again. Something about the girl reminded him of school. It was his time to go this week.

Two other band members approached. The lead singer strutted over. Ty, an older kid from New Robles. The incorporated east side. He wandered over with an eye on the crowd, his guitarist fast on his heels. Ty pointed at the toughs.

-Hey, I saw those motherfuckers eating ice cream outside, right before the show.-

The guitarist laughed, Andrew did too. He looked for a second at the guitarist's tattoo. A
fly. They'd gotten their's together.

-Ice cream eating motherfuckers.-

Andrew saw what he hoped to see. His dirty secret. A few boys with jean jackets just arrived and surrounded the Skin-Secters. On the sleeves and backs of their jackets, the identical images of the Fly.

Andrew made a face. A worried one. He knew if a fight went down between the Cult of the Fly and the Skin-Secters, everyone could say goodbye to music shows. At least not here. Yet there was barely a "here" anywhere, anymore.

Ty turned on the mic in his hand. Andrew knew he never went far without it. Someone would've had to pry it out of his cold hands...

-Hey! What’s up with all this punk rock violence?!-

The audience gave him some of their attention, much of which took the form of laughter. Suddenly a chant went out, first weakly, but soon with strength.

You all got minds this big—THIS BIG!
You all got minds this big—THIS BIG!
You all got minds this big—THIS BIG!
You all got minds this big—THIS BIG!

Andrew watched his boys from the Cult of the Fly approach the Skin-Secters. The toughs no longer cared about the three girls. Their dispute now was with the punk-rock culters - and the Skin-Secters couldn't have looked happier than with the thought of violence. Andrew took a step to join his boys. The guitarist grabbed his arm, shook his head. Andrew remembered. No gang bullshit. He stood back on his heels, knowing a fight would soon erupt. He waited...for his chance to jump down there and bust some white supremacist skulls.

Feedback from Ty's mic got everyone to look on stage.

-You boys look lost.-

The Skin-Secters look up at the stage. The crowd murmured. The shorter of the
two - and isn’t it always the smaller one, Andrew thought - made eye contact with Ty.

-You should talk, boy!-

The crowd immediately booed. The boys from the Cult of the Fly shoved one of the Skin-Secters. Andrew tensed, thought…he didn't really like to talk to a crowd. But he felt a strong impulse to do something he normally didn't like. Before he had a chance to think otherwise, he found the mic in his hands.

Andrew's voice cracked a little. He felt uncomfortable, and bet he looked that way too. Composure came to him though. Is this how his father felt? 

-Tell you what. You – whatevers - know the score. The truce stands in the clubs. If one of you can beat me at a nice game of arm wrestling, we might play some of your battle hymns for the race war. But if you lose, you leave the girls alone. You leave the club.-

The rest of the band looked on. Mostly in disbelief. Andrew swallowed. He looked at the girls in the crowd, mostly at the girl with the long dark brown hair. He was pretty sure he knew her. School. This week he had to return to his assigned block of school.

The larger of the Skin-Secters began to make his big move. The tough sauntered towards the stage like one of those stormtroopers of old. Wasn't it always the bigger one? Andrew thought.

-No ones losing, no ones leaving.-

Andrew felt his bad attitude grow fierce.

-Someone has to lose...-

The Skin-Secter sneered. Andrew felt time slow, forced to wait forever. He amused himself with the tough's tattoos. One on his neck. An iron cross. Andrew always had a hard time telling one Skin-Secter from the next.

Andrew knelt down on the edge of the stage, and as he did so, he must have purposely made sure the this enemy culter could see his own tattoo on his forearm. The Fly. The tough flared his nostrils and Andrew knew, the first shot had been fired. Fuck the truce. 

The Skin-Secter went through his ritual to discard his bomber jacket. This huff-and-puff-up took forever. When it was mercifully over, Andrew saw more tattoos. Swastikas. American flags. More Iron Crosses. If he had any more he'd be wearing the corporate-corps grey of some Diversionary company.

Andrew puts out his hand. The Skin-Secter looked once more at his fly tattoo. These Skin-Secters were a strange bunch. 

He made sure to look once more at the scene in the club. 

Maybe a hundred kids with hungry eyes with hair to match the colors of their eyes and general depositions stood underneath a tattered U.S. flag that read in spray-painted letters Fuck you very much, Mr. Harrison! His home away from home.

***

They clasped hands and began. There was no real signal. Not here. This wasn't Ameri-ball, or whatever the nationalists called later-day North American football. For the culters of the clubs and the streets - every house a den of infamy, as the press junkies called these poli-charged times - games took on an air of seriousness that wiped the adolescence off a joker's face and replaced it with the ski-mask and bandana of the urban warrior.

A form of low-intensity combat had begun, each ready to be done with the other. This animosity was replayed anywhere in the city right now. It could take many forms. But right here, this battle between mystery youth-cults, had taken this form. And for Andrew it was good, it was all he needed. The Great Game, the press junkies called it on the Feed.

Because for all the brawn and…that’s really all these toughs had…Andrew beat him soundly.

Yet Andrew didn't hear the crowd erupt with applause, nor sing the anthem of this club's affiliated cults (Nazi Punks Fuck Off!) as the Skin-Secters left the club and waved goodbye with middle fingers and Sieg Heils raised high at the top of their voices. 

Andrew picked himself up, as Ty said into the microphone - never challenge a drummer to arm wrestling. 

Andrew Liam Clare smiled, felt good, looked out into the mysteries of the crowd. He saw the girl with the long dark brown hair. She saw him. He imagined what she looked like when she wore it down. He then remembered. School. He had to go to the school this week, or his father would get fined.

***

A night's ride home in a car Andrew never wanted, but which his father wanted him to drive. If not for drugged out evenings of using BIC lighters to burn designs into the inner roof of the car, the car would've looked brand new. That, and the band stickers. The best one that Andrew liked, which matched the shirt he now wore - I Pledge Allegiance to Shit.

He listened to a song he would never listen to in front of his friends. He might lose some PR points. Emotive, the song went. Something about being back eating, or fucking, or something. The window of his car was open, the song bellowed loudly out into the night, and Andrew sang along. He would definitely lose some points for this drivel. He noticed the volume of the song just before he pulled into the driveway of his house. He stopped long before he turned off the music. Couldn't be too careful with parents.

It was early morning in America, and the suburbs slept.

He slammed the door much too loud, grimaced at the thought of his father - he could already hear the old man yell at him. Stop slamming doors. He also didn't want to wake the dog. The dog could bark but Andrew couldn't make a sound. Like the cartoons, that was the law of the west. The family pet - not the wild dog - was the Man's best friend.

There was something wrong. He smelled something burning. A closer, hesitant step turned into a quicker series of steps. The headlamps of a passing car shone through the window. The light illuminated a layer of smoke in the house. Something was really wrong. He took another hesitant step. Where was his father's outlaw-gun now?

-Mom? Dad?-

Nothing. Worse, he thought. The dog would've barked at the sound of his voice. For once he wished it had. 

There was a light on in the kitchen. He nearly ran towards a possible answer to his question. Upon entry, nothing. There was no one in the kitchen. But he did he see the source of smoke. A thick sheet billowed out of the sides of the oven door. He quickly shut it off, opened the door—whereupon he quickly regretted—smoke gets in your eyes his father would have crooned. Blinded, he groped for the object on fire. He found a cooking sheet, and stupidly burned his hand. He reached in the oven again with an oven mitt this time. Smart, Andy. He was just in time to save his favorites. Burnt cookies. Better yet, he instantly smelled marijuana. My mom the stoner, and he put the cookie sheet in the sink. Quickly turning on the water, he opened the window and turned away from the last puffs of smoke. Stoned, bro.

He stumbles out of the kitchen and looked down the long hallway that connected the kitchen with the bedrooms. Something was crouched at the foot of his father’s office door. It was the dog. He called its name. The dog looked at him, whimpered, and looked back at the door.

Andrew took a step towards the office. His hand touched the doorknob. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around. It was his mother. Crazy eyes.

-Mom…-

-You…ruined the cookies…-

-…Mom...? You could've burned down the house. Where’s dad?

He didn't have time for this. His hand had never left the door handle and he turned it. His mother grabbed him by the shoulder, and he spun around again and faced his mother. She looked out of her mind. Not this shit again.

-Where are they? I need them to go to sleep!-

Andrew briefly let go of the door handle.

-Mom…talk to me.-

-Where are my cookies?-

She stormed off. One problem at a time. He lingered on her, watched her, as she went back to the kitchen. The last wisps of smoke died. Smoke gets in your eyes the song went. He couldn't get it out of his head. 


He turned around and stepped on the tail of the dog. The dog snapped at him. He got out of the way quickly - the beast was crazy - then opened the door of the office. There was a light on in the office. He could see his father on the floor doing something. His mouth was open and ready to speak. Andrew readied his answer. His father answered it for him. The top of his father’s head was gone and a wake of gore covered the floor and a wall. Andrew knew now where his father’s outlaw-gun was, but he didn't take the time to look any longer. He saw the ruined head of his father and never looked back again. 

Out of the office. As quickly as he could go. The dog whimpered again. For the first time he felt bad for the thing. He saw his father's lamp. Andrew knew how his father loved that lamp. Supposedly it cost $300. Andrew hit the lamp with a wild swing of his forearm. It shattered in a plume of brief light, then gone forever. Good. Never challenge a drummer to arm wrestle.

His mother came out of the kitchen holding the cookie tray full of wet, burned cookies. Andrew recognized the look on her face. She looked angry, and for the first time, he felt fear waiting for her to speak.

-You want to be angry! Huh?! You want to break things?!-

She looked at the pieces of the shattered lamp on the floor. She flew at him. In a rage, she clawed at him, grabbed his hair, and he had to duck. Frustrated, he gripped her by the hands. She was always much stronger when angry.

Sounds came from outside. Colored lights came through the windows and whirled spectacularly on the walls. A car had pulled into the driveway. A cop car. Andrew heard the doors close. Footsteps, then knocks on the door.

He fought off his mother and went to the door. Funny, he thought, just before he opened the door. He wanted nothing more than to see the police right now. Hate the Police, he laughed, just as he opened the door.

Two police officers - he couldn’t tell if they were municipal or private or diversionary - held flashlights up to his face. He put his hands up, noticed that blood covered one of them....

-My father is dead.-

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