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Apr/May 2005 fiction

Tough

by Phil Jones


Ask people about their hometowns, and they'll roll it out for you, thick as asphalt. Maybe the hockey team slogged their way to the nationals, or a local bone bunny landed a bit part in some movie. Whatever the shred of glory, they'll blow air up its ass until it's bigger than a Goodyear blimp. That's just the way people are.

I don't try to fool myself. My hometown is a hole. The hockey team's not good for much, and no one from here ever showed up on TV or the big screen. The only thing Charlton River is known for is a bad temper: a place where full-grown men brawl like sea lions in the streets. That's why my dad won't let me go down there. It's also why I'm going. Tonight.

After the lies are told and dark has fallen, my best pal Ricky Knowles and I start for town. The trip is dicey. Two young kids are easy picking for gangs. We keep to back-roads and alleys, diving for the weeds each time a pack of toughs loom from the dark. The truth be told, we hit the weeds when anything looms from the dark, and there we lie, mud stench filling our noses, hearts pounding until the coast is clear again.

An hour later we're standing beneath the jittery neon anchor of the Marine Inn. My brother Morris has told me dozens of stories about this place. Like the time Big Pete Osterholm took on four cops and won. Morris told me he'd phoned them all an ambulance with their own radio. Now that was style. There was another time a guy named Lasalle, or Lacroix, a Frenchy anyway and a logger, had drank twenty shots of tequila in half an hour. Later he killed his own brother over a hockey bet. There were more stories than time to tell them.

In the light of day it was just a building, a barn really, in the middle of a parking lot. Nothing special at all. Now, with the place full of winking chrome and the party rumbling inside, I know everything I've heard is true.

I grab Ricky and we scramble across the lot and up the fire escape. From the top of the stairs we can see the harbour lights blinking above the breakwater. Directly below is the back door of the pub. The reek of puke and cigarettes rises on the night air to where we sit, catching our breath. I check to see how Ricky's doing. He's been known to bolt for home if things get freaky. Looks normal so far, or as normal as he gets with his red fright wig hair and those psychotic, bulgy eyes.

I'm pulling a cigarette out when the door below bursts open. Two men swing through.

We can see them down there as clear as day. The bigger guy has long blond hair pulled back tight in a ponytail. He whips out a joint and flicks his Zippo. It's then I notice the cobras winding up each thick forearm. Everyone in town knows these tattoos. It's Rory Coombes. He sucks the smoke in with a hiss and passes the reefer to the skinny guy.

Coombes is a local legend. He looks like a Hollywood star with his square jaw and perfect smile, but he's a stone criminal. They don't come any tougher, or meaner. He brings it all in, hash, acid, weed. The heavier stuff too.

I can't believe our luck. It's an honest to god dope deal. Ricky is shaking and gulping air like a dry-docked goldfish. He's about two seconds away from blasting off the way he does, so I clamp my hand around his mouth.

Skinny guy picks the joint from the block of Coombe's fist. His hands are slender by comparison, like a girl's. He takes a long toke and holds it in, then rocks his head back, exhaling a thick plume of smoke. I'm sure he's spotted us when he lets out a cackle.

"Christ, that's good! What is it?"

Coombes takes the joint back, snuffs it between his fingers.

"Dust from the angels, Frankie. There's more if you're a good boy."

Frankie reaches out and brushes Coombe's cheek with the back of his hand. Even a kid like me knows a man like Rory Coombes doesn't let anyone, let alone a dip-shit like this, touch him. Not like that. There's going to be trouble.

Coombes grabs a handful of the guy's hair and pushes him to his knees. Frankie doesn't fight it much. Not at all, in fact. Coombe's free hand dips into his vest. This movement is all too familiar. I've seen it a thousand times on TV. Coombes will whip out a pistol, something sleek and lethal, with a silencer maybe. He will calmly place it at the base of this guy's skull and pull the trigger. It's a Gangland slaying, and us not twenty feet away. By the way he's snivelling and blowing snot through my fingers, Ricky's come to the same conclusion.

Instead, Coombes pulls a small baggie out and slips it into the guy's front pocket.

"Time to do your duty, stud," he says in a husky voice.

He starts to fumble with his pants. I'm still thinking pistol when out flops his cock. He just holds it there.

"Does it look like I have all night?" he asks.

Frankie doesn't answer. He leans over and puts it in his mouth. His head starts pumping, rolling side to side like the thing is covered with chocolate. Coombes falls back against the wall. He's making these sick fucking sounds, kind of whimpering. Every time Frankie pulls back we can see his big wiener all covered with spit.

I know this shit is going to stick with me. It will change everything I thought I knew about anything. I'll look back years from now and know it was a "pivotal moment," whatever the hell that means. And with all this knowing, the worst thing I know is that this is the best story I'll never tell.

Ricky has gone quiet. He's just sort of slumping over, staring at me, tears leaking from his frog eyes.

There's a thump below. Someone is yelling from behind the pub door.

"Rory! What's going on, man?"

Coombes shoves Frankie away and leaps in front of the door. He tucks himself back into his trousers and curses softly. The voice from the other side of the door is more insistent now.

"Rory, you all right out there?"

Coombes takes two quick steps and kicks Frankie square in the chin. There's a wet snapping sound. It's just like boxing on TV, the overhead view. Skinny guy is suddenly staring straight up at us with a look that's says, "Hey fellas, don't just sit there, do something." Then his eyes glass over. Coombes keeps driving forward, booting him again and again like a vending machine that won't cough up the goods. By this time all the boys have poured out of the bar. He's standing above Frankie now, jabbing a finger at him.

"Let's show this son-of-a-bitch what we do with narks in the River."

Two of them grab Frankie by the arms and pull him into the shadow of the building. We can't see anything, but we hear echoing thuds and some crying. The crying stops after awhile, but the thuds don't. Coombes and his buddies come out a minute later, arm in arm, laughing as they go back in the pub.

The bar noise is snapped off by the closing door. I take my hand off Ricky's mouth. No scream, no ranting, no flying out of the blocks like Ben Johnson. Ricky has gone zombie.

"Snap the fuck out of it, man."

I grab him by the shirt, and drag him down the steps until his legs start moving on their own. At the base of the stairs I tell him to wait. I walk slowly into the shadows. Frankie is lying against the wall, head on his chest, legs wide apart. There is blood everywhere, smeared along the bricks, pooled on the ground. I move a bit closer. Don't really know why. I just want to see. I am close enough to touch him when he raises his head. Out of his ruined face comes a sound like air whistling through water.

We don't bother with alleys on the way home.

The next day at school I tell everyone I kicked him. I kicked that fucking nark.

 

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