It was an era of incivility; a mean time when lines were drawn and people picked sides. A few lived large while most teetered on the precipice. In those days, I ran with a rough crowd, rowdy guys who played pick-up rugby on weekends, drank until they puked, and got into fights. We attended community college part-time and worked at corporate dives like Wal-Mart, Applebees, and Best Buy. Some of the guys lived at home with parents lacking the fortitude to kick their sorry asses onto the street. Butch and I rented the upper floor of a dilapidated house on South Main. Most nights, after work or classes, we cruised the drag from the old railroad station to the turn-around. Sundays, Butch and I drove north out of Indiana, into the darkness on the edge of town, crossing the line into Michigan where the girls were easier, the beer cheaper, and the back roads lonelier.
We were shooting nine-ball at Zimmy’s the first time I saw Lila. The game paid on the three, five, seven, and nine, and we were into two family men for more than they could afford. Between racks, the younger of our two opponents, a skinny, nervous dude with greasy black hair, retreated to the bathroom to snort the balance of his paycheck up his nose. The older guy—I guessed him for early forties—smoked cigarettes and checked out a gaggle of hard-edged women congregating around the fireplace.
Everyone turned to look, even the old farts and floozies tilting against the bar, when the three girls flounced into the place. None of them was knock-out pretty, but they were young, curvy, and mostly unblemished. They wore five-inch heels, tight jeans, and sweaters that bunched around their breasts. Lila’s long blonde hair, blue eyes, and tough-girl stance caused her to stand out from her two homelier friends.
The bartender, an overweight ex-cop who went by the name of Hammer, checked their IDs and served up beers. When she leaned in for a sip, Lila’s thong crept above her waistband, revealing a garish tattoo that ranged from one shapely hip to the other. There was something vulnerable and tainted about her, underscored by that tattoo. I wanted to lick it, like a dog licking a wound.
“Fresh meat,” the older guy said with a wink, and even in a joint like Zimmy’s it sounded crude, the kind of comment that sucked the soul out of every person there.
“Your shot, man,” Butch told him in a monotone. Tall and rangy with a scraggly beard and long hair peeking out from under his Cubs’ baseball cap, Butch had no patience for banter while playing pool. He drank Wild Turkey, changed his own oil, and fought without fear.
“You like that?” the younger guy asked.
He’d caught me looking and read my mind. I felt like he’d stolen something precious from me. “I can take it or leave it.”
He thrust his hand into his jeans’ pocket, leaving his wedding ring behind. “Yeah, me too.”
I wanted to wipe that leer off of his face as much as I wanted to shut his partner up.
“Will you fucking shoot?” Butch said.
The older guy gave a “whatever” shrug, lined up his shot, and missed, leaving Butch with a duck on the two. After tapping it into the side pocket, he dropped the three, four, and five. Then, snookered by his own hand, he tucked the cue ball against the rail at the far end of the table from the seven, the six having fallen on the break. The younger guy couldn’t even see the seven much less make it. After he missed, I ran out the table, putting us up three hundred dollars for the night.
The family men paid, then asked to play again. I explained that since they were broke and we didn’t shoot for pleasure our brief encounter had run its course. The older guy protested, saying they could be trusted for it. Butch reset his baseball cap on his head and said he wouldn’t trust him to shovel shit with Chinamen. The two glared at each other until I tossed a ten on the table as a peace offering. The younger guy swept it up, took his partner by the elbow, and steered him to the bar. Butch and I found a spot on the opposite side of the fireplace from the hard women, ordered drinks, and waited for the next suckers to show. The family men sidled up next to Lila and her girls, buying them a round with my ten.
I guessed her to be eighteen to twenty. She probably lived at home and waitressed at a restaurant on the lake. Or maybe she was a college girl, slumming with friends who hadn’t been lucky enough to escape these parts. Maybe she had a boyfriend who treated her like an angel, or was a backwoods farm girl who’d never even been felt up in the back seat of a car. When the door opened and a cold north wind blew in, Lila’s nipples strained against the fabric of her sweater. The younger guy’s hand slid down her back and over her buttocks. She squirmed away, but he was back at her a few minutes later. I caught her eye and nodded. She returned my nod before looking away.
While the older guy chatted up Lila’s friends, Butch saluted them from across the bar. He stuck cigarettes up his nose and into his ears. The girls giggled, watching his act over the older guy’s shoulder. Butch balanced a spoon on the end of his nose. The girls giggled again, and the older guy turned to see what was so funny. Butch scratched between his eyes with an index finger, surreptitiously flipping the guy off, and causing the girls to giggle even more.
The younger guy tried to work a knee between Lila’s legs. He whispered into her ear and rubbed his chest against hers. He brushed her hair aside and stuck his tongue in her ear. She wriggled away only to have him do it again. After a while, I’d seen all I could take. I finished my beer, crossed the room, and pushed my way between them.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“C’mon, man, she doesn’t want your hands all over her.”
He took a step back, grinned, and said I should mind my own damn business.
“Why don’t we ask her?”
Lila stared at the floor. “I guess I rather not be pawed,” she said, her voice barely audible against the backdrop of music, chatter, and laughter.
Humiliated for a second time that night, the younger guy’s face burned. He was pissed and high, a volatile combination, and it wasn’t hard to see what was coming next. Not believing in fair fights, if I could avoid them, I surprised him with a short, quick jab to the heart. He doubled over, and I hit him again, this time across the back of his neck. He dropped to his knees, clutching at my thighs. I tore loose and kicked him in his bony ribs. When the older guy started for me, Butch laid a pool cue upside his ear, opening a long, deep slash along his cheek. He sagged like an old barn.
I grabbed Lila by the hand and headed for the door about the time Hammer cleared the bar. Butch held the fat man off with his cue stick and ushered the other two girls out behind Lila and me. We made a run for it across the parking lot. Butch dropped his Mustang into gear, popped the clutch, and roared into the night, snow drifts as high as the car’s roof on both sides of the road. Lila’s friends snuggled together in the passenger’s seat up front, squealing. Lila sat next to me on the bench in the back.
“Are you totally crazy?” she asked.
I sank into the naugahyde. “We’re not crazy. We’re bad asses.”
She looked me over. Michigan moonlight streamed in through the rear window, revealing a sickle-shaped scar at the corner of her mouth. “You’re not such a bad ass,” she said.
I might not have been the bad ass I thought I was, but she was no waitress, college student, or farmer’s daughter. She lived in a run-down mobile home on a cul de sac at the end of a gravel lane with her father and two older brothers, Larry and Dwight. They were rarely around, working days as tree trimmers, yard men, and house painters, and fishing and hunting on weekends. They grew marijuana, dried it in a shed behind the trailer, and used a machine to roll tight, little bogies, which they sold to other locals lacking the industriousness to raise and roll their own. Lila washed their clothes, cooked their meals, and picked up after them, the wife and mother having long since fled the scene. I couldn’t blame her. I’d seen the old man, gnarly as an aged tree, teeth missing up front, and a broken nose. He came to the door instead of Lila once, hitching his overhauls over bare shoulders as he strode across the darkened room and asking what he could do me for. I told him I was lost and needed directions.
Early on, she confessed to being a high school drop-out, closer in age to sixteen than eighteen. So far as I could tell, there was no facile intelligence lurking behind those pale blue eyes, no clever conversation waiting to bubble forth from that soft, willing mouth. She preferred soap operas to sitcoms, and the only books she read were trashy romance novels with busty babes on the cover. In a t-shirt and jeans, hair pulled back, and lacking make-up, she was plainer than she’d appeared that night at Zimmy’s. She lived on ice cream, candy, and root beer, making her soft around the middle and prone to tooth decay. It wasn’t hard to imagine what middle-age held for her.
We didn’t date in the regular sense of the word, but as winter turned to spring and spring to summer I spent more and more time at Lila’s. I’d blow off classes or call in sick at work. I’d show up in the middle of the morning or early afternoon, when her old man and brothers were out.
We both knew what I was looking for.
She wasn’t double-jointed or kinky, wasn’t a moaner or screamer; but she was capable, even skilled in the ordinary maneuvers of sex. She never asked to be taken out, didn’t expect to have money lavished on her, and wasn’t interested in the least in how I spent my time away from her. Not once did she ask, “Randy, where do you see this going?”
Part of me knew I was taking advantage. Another part of me was like a crack addict who denies his addiction each time he torches a rock. Besides, she was as grateful for the attention as a puppy having its belly scratched. For three months, I kept Lila secret from Butch and my other so-called friends, much as another man might have secreted an online affair from his wife.
Then, one evening in August, I came home from class to find Lila sitting on our front porch stoop. She wore a cheap cotton dress, the five-inch heels I’d seen her in that first night at Zimmy’s, and too much make-up. Across her shoulder was a bling-encrusted purse, and sitting next to her was a leather suitcase that looked like it had been stowed in someone’s attic since 1950.
“She cannot stay,” Butch said.
Lila remained on the stoop while we talked it through. I argued for one night, seeing it as a reasonable accommodation to an awkward situation.
Butch remained adamant. “No way in hell,” were his exact words.
I asked what she’d told him.
“You know what she told me.” His voice was laced with disgust, maybe even contempt, arising, no doubt, from the self-knowledge that while he’d never have fallen into this particular mess, he could just as easily have found trouble in another realm. We both knew he preferred fighting to fucking.
“It just sort of happened,” I said in my defense.
There was no moving him. “Make it unhappen. She’s jailbait, and I’m not going to jail over this.”
I fetched two beers from our aging Frigidaire and went out to the stoop. Cars cruised by with shirtless guys hanging out the windows. The drivers played their music too loudly and called out to pedestrians in the crosswalk. The neighborhood had been taken over by Hispanics, and the air smelled like burning oil and tacos. There was a Wash N’ Dry on the corner next to a redneck bar. Blood stained the sidewalk out front.
“How’d you find me?” I asked.
“Copied your address off your driver’s license when you were in the bathroom. I walked out to the county road and caught a ride from a farmer.”
Maybe she had more on the ball than I’d thought. “So, why did you run away?”
She set her jaw. “I don’t like how they treat me. I do and do and do and nothing’s ever enough. They didn’t appreciate Momma, and now they don’t appreciate me.”
This had been building over the summer, a crescendo of complaints I’d chosen to ignore.
“You need to work this out with your dad.”
“No. I need a place to stay until I find a job.”
“Well, you can’t stay here. You’re underage.”
“You weren’t worried about that when you were humping me.”
I stared at the cement between my knees. I watched a cockroach crawl in front of us before stomping out its life. “I can’t, Lila. Butch won’t allow it, and this is his place as much as mine.”
She took a tone she’d never used before. “And I can’t go back. I’ll never have a life if I don’t get out of there. I want to earn my GED, maybe become a beautician.”
I conceded that the world could never have enough beauticians.
“And, you know what? I want to travel. I’d like to go to France or Italy or even Belgium.”
“Well, why not? You think I never heard of Belgium?”
Her tone made me squirm. In all the hours we’d spent together, there had been no reason to acknowledge that Lila might have dreams beyond that mobile home on the cul de sac. But now her future lay before us like a holiday dinner, fragrant with hope and expectation.
“There’s nothing wrong with Belgium,” was all I could think of to say.
“I mean, what do you want to do, Randy? Stay here, shoot pool with your buddies, and slip around with teen-aged girls for the rest of your life?”
I turned to look into a face I no longer recognized; no more the face of some empty-headed slut picked up in a bar, but the earnest face of a girl trying to become a woman. “Don’t worry about me, I have a plan.”
She finished her beer. “I thought there was more to you than this.”
I slapped my thighs and stood, unable to remain sitting. I offered her fifty dollars, the remainder of my winnings from the week before.
“What am I supposed to do with that?” she asked. “That won’t last a week, if I have to rent a room and buy my own food.”
“Take it. It’s all I have.”
“Well, it’s not enough.”
“So, what do you want me to do?”
She placed her elbows on her knees and cupped her chin in her hand. “My daddy keeps cash in a coffee can. It’s what he makes selling dope. I didn’t take it before, because I knew he’d come after me if I did. But, now, I got no choice. You have to drive me out there, so I can steal that money.”
“Damn straight tonight. We need to get this done, so I can get on with my life.”
“What about your dad and your brothers?”
"They’ll be out froggin’ until daylight.”
“Maybe they will and maybe they won’t.”
She shrugged. “What difference does it make? If they’re around, you can beat ‘em up. You’re a bad ass aren’t you?”
There were plenty of things I could have said or done, but at the time my options seemed few. I gathered up our beer bottles and headed inside. “Give me a minute,” I told Lila.
I laid it out to Butch and asked to borrow his car, his Mustang being more reliable and faster than my used Volkswagen. I told him I’d be back as soon as I could, in and out, clean with the money, in no time at all.
“They’re out all night?” he asked from under the brim of his baseball cap.
“That’s what she says.”
He considered it—the situation rife with conflict and possibility. “Maybe, I better come along. You know, watch your back.”
I wasn’t about to refuse his company.
The deal we cut with Lila was that she’d never show her face again.
Butch slipped his trusted leather billy club through a belt loop on his jeans and I tucked a tire iron under the driver’s seat.
Just in case.
We parked on the shoulder of the county road and walked the distance from Butch’s Mustang to the mobile home. Illuminated by a bright half moon, the woods on both sides of the gravel pulsed with the steamy growth of vegetation, the scream of cicadas, and the occasional rustle of a raccoon. No one spoke; there was nothing to say. We were bad characters on a mission to steal from even worse characters. I carried the tire iron. Butch’s billy slapped against his thigh. When we closed in on Lila’s mobile home we kept to the shadows. A pick-up truck and an aging Jeep sat out front, but no lights shined from within the trailer. We squatted in the underbrush and watched and listened.
“They must be in Larry’s car,” Lila whispered. “They go to the marsh on the other side of Zimmy’s.”
“You’re sure no one’s home?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure.”
She drew a breath and fished inside her purse for a set of keys. “I’ll be right back.”
We watched her teeter across the yard in her heels, hips rolling beneath the cotton dress. She took one final look around before inserting the key, turning the lock, and disappearing inside. Long seconds passed, then we heard a scream and a crash. A moment later, Lila burst from the door, clutching a coffee can. She kicked off her heels and made a dash for the woods, breasts heaving, purse flapping, just out of reach of her old man who, dressed only in boxers and a wife-beater, followed hot on her tail.
Butch and I strode out of our hiding place. We didn’t get far before the brothers emerged from behind a woodpile. Like the old man, they were thick and squat with arms like baseball bats. They rushed in low, looking to wrestle us to the ground and do their damage there. I side-stepped Larry and kicked him on the rump as he drove past. The extra momentum sent him sprawling face-first into the grill work of the pick-up truck. As I advanced to take advantage of the moment, I saw Butch on my periphery. He had Dwight in a headlock and was hammering away.
I didn’t expect Larry to recover as quickly as he did. He was on his feet again by the time I arrived, blood streaming from his forehead and a stupid grin on his ruined mouth. I feinted with my left and punched with my right. I caught him on the ear, but felt a sick burn across my chest. I stepped away, blood seeping from the slash and through my shirt. Larry circled low, a straight-edged razor sizzling between us. I cursed myself for leaving the tire iron in our hiding place. I fought back panic and nausea and waited for him to lunge. When he did, I popped him again, but paid the price with another burn, this one to my left cheek. I slapped at it, and took a solid right cross between my eyes. I fell backward, vaguely aware that Larry was moving away.
I inhaled dirt and decomposing garbage, dog shit from another era. Across the yard, I saw Dwight break free of Butch’s headlock and bury a frog gig in his forearm. Butch bellowed and reached for his billy. Larry arrived and slashed with his razor, Dazed from Dwight’s wound, Butch swatted only air.
I felt heavy. Time slowed and it was difficult to focus. I regained my hands and knees and began to crawl. Behind me, I heard the sound of flesh on flesh; the brothers had Butch pinned against the pick-up, pummeling at will.
I felt around by instinct until I located the tire iron. I managed to stand, knees wobbly, vision blurred. I took a breath, roared, and ran, swinging the tire iron like a war axe. The brothers turned. I brought my weapon down across the bridge of Larry’s nose. He fell in place. Before I could strike Dwight, Butch and his billy connected with a head-snapping shot to the chin. Caught in the heat of the moment, Butch probably would have him finished him off had a shotgun blast not rocked the night.
Lila had managed to escape, leaving the old man free. He stood in front of the trailer, a smoking double barrel resting on his shoulder. Butch and I darted for the thicket. We crashed and thrashed about until another blast scared us to the ground.
We lay in darkness, behind a fallen tree, not twenty yards away from the old man and the brothers. We watched the old man make his way to Dwight, who’d managed to regain his feet. Blood drained, thick and black as motor oil, from the cut on his chin. The old man stripped off his wife-beater and wound it tight around Dwight’s head and chin. Together the two of them went to check on Larry. He still lay motionless where he’d fallen, and it occurred to me that I might have killed him. They wiped his face with Dwight’s shirt and sat him up.
Larry held his head in his hands and mumbled a few words, dazed and likely concussed, but alive. I would not spend the rest of my life, clinching my cheeks in a Michigan prison. While Dwight comforted his brother, the old man stalked over the thicket’s edge where Butch and I had disappeared.
“I know you sonsabitches are out there,” he said. “I can see you. C’mon out and I won’t shoot.”
We didn’t flinch.
The old man walked back to where the brothers clung to one another. The three conferred before the old man returned. “All right, you chickenshits. Have it your way.”
The old man and brothers conferred again. Dwight went inside the trailer and returned with two large pipe wrenches. He handed one to Larry and the three of them set off up the road.
“My car,” Butch whispered. “Not my goddamned car.”
We took a moment to check our wounds. My razor cuts oozed blood, but the muscle beneath the skin remained intact. Butch was worse. He removed the frog gig with a groan; his forearm showed four puncture wounds down to the bone. We tied his arm off with my belt and eased our way through the thorns and brambles. Lila was nowhere in sight, and I couldn’t risk calling out to her. Halfway to where we’d parked the Mustang we heard the sound of glass breaking and metal clanking on metal. By the time we’d crept to where we could see, the windshield and the lights were out. Ugly dents showed on the hood and fenders.
Butch seethed beside me, but there was nothing to be done, not with the old man holding that shotgun. After a while, the brothers gave out. Larry dropped his pipe wrench, bent double, and threw up. When he finished, he was too weak to stand. The old man paced the tree line not far from where we hunkered, our hearts thundering, our breath rasping.
“I know you’re in there. I’ll get you yet,” the old man hollered. “You hear me Lila, you little whore, I’ll have you and them boys before this is over.”
Dwight called out to his father. Larry had toppled over. The old man came and squatted next to him. He placed a hand on Larry’s shoulder before sending Dwight down the road. I heard him say, “stitches, emergency room.” By the time Dwight returned in the Jeep, Larry was on his feet again. Dwight helped him into the back seat while the old man made a final appeal for Lila to come forward. After it became clear she wasn’t showing, they drove off, leaving us to the moonlight, the cicadas, and the raccoons.
No one moved for ten minutes.
Then Lila called my name. We walked out to the car, glass and gravel crunching beneath our feet. “Someone’s going to pay for this,” Butch said. “Someone’s dying over this.”
Lila stepped out of the woods on the other side of the road. Her dress was torn, her five-inch heels lost, her face scratched from the thicket. She let out a cackle and waved her wad of stolen cash high.
“Damn,” she said. “Maybe you are a bad ass.”
“Keep your voice down,” I told her.
Butch opened a car door and brushed glass off the seat. He slid inside, started the engine, and then stepped out for a full inspection. “Dumb shits didn’t slash the tires,” he said. “That’s the first thing I would’ve done.”
Lila took my hand and stepped in close. She crushed her breasts against my chest, her breath hot in my ear. “Let’s go somewhere and fuck.”
I pulled away. “I don’t think so.”
“C’mon, I got this money now. We can party it up. My friends live just down the road. They’ll take care of Butch.”
“Get in the car,” he said. “We’re dropping you at the first hotel.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Don’t be that way. Let’s have some fun.”
“You better drive,” Butch said. “My arm’s getting stiff.”
“Get in and shut up,” I told Lila, “or I’m leaving you here.”
Butch and I settled into the front seat, Lila in the back. With the lights out, all I had was the moon. I found first gear and crept forward. There was just enough light to make it back to Indiana.
A lawyer by background, Gary V. Powell currently spends most of his time writing and wrangling an 11-year old son. His stories have appeared at Pithead Chapel, Prime Number, Fiction Southeast, Carvezine, and other online and print publications. In addition, several of his stories have placed or been selected as finalists in national contests. Most recently, his story "Super Nova" received an Honorable Mention in the Press 53 2012 Awards. His first novel, "Lucky Bastard," is currently available through Main Street Rag Press.