When someone from back home asked if I knew you, I denied it.
“Do you know the murdered boy?” she asked
“No I don’t think so,” I responded, and maybe in some ways I really don’t. But I did. I knew you. I knew you in a past life. Through moments. In a fear that nestled in among the townspeople. I knew you alone in a rec-hall basement. Navigating your transgressions. Bouncing them off of my own, like we were watching a rubber-ball dribble to a stop on the sidewalk. You asked if I knew you did it? I told you I wasn’t sure. You called me a liar, and I denied it.
I had discovered Jesse Crick around the same time I discovered poverty. I never thought it strange that most of the food on our dinner table had to be reconstituted. Packages of powdered milk, potato flakes, flap-jacks from Bisquick, tubes of orange juice concentrate, and Stovetop-style stuffing. It was only after I opened the neighbor-boy’s fridge (the big one that spat ice from its door) that I understood what it meant to be poor. The cool air hit my face, as I perused the organized perishables.
“Grab whatever,” he said.
“Won’t your parents be upset?” I was eyeing a mountain of lunchmeat that resembled an organ, like a tongue or a liver or maybe the small intestine.
“It’s just food man. It’s not like we’re Jesse Crick.”
“Who?” I asked, grabbing for the plastic jug of real chocolate milk.
“You don’t know cocksucker Crick? Poor kid? Dirty piss-jeans. C’mon man he’s from the food-stamp family that lives at the bottom of St. Anne’s Hill. He goes to McKinley. All those scum-bag welfares go there.” The ice-maker made a mechanical gurgle and continued to hum. I started building a sandwich as I thought about how my oldest brother had gone to McKinley Public before we had moved.
You had a reputation that preceded you. It’s hard not to in the small dirt-town we were from. The rumors lingered like the stink in the air from the turkey plant situated in off of I-95. They said your dad was a drinker. Half Cherokee. A lowlife that worked overnights wherever they would have him. The Old-Home Bakery, the Dakota-Style Potato Chip plant fifteen miles out in Clark County, the box factory. They said he drank himself out town and onto a reservation somewhere in the Badlands, leaving you and your mom to fend for yourselves. They said your mom was a lesbian, and that you were a deviant.
The first time I met Jesse he stole from me. I guess I should have known he was trouble from the earing that he wore. An upside down cross situated awkwardly high in his right earlobe.
“Nice bike,” he said, and he was right. It was nice. It was the first nice thing I remember owning. I can remember the tension coming off of my father when he bought it.
“Do not mess around with this thing. It’s costing us a lot!” His hand shook a little as he wrote the check to the cashier. “You break it. You lose it. That’s it. You don’t get another one. Understand?”
“Yep. I’ll guard it with my life.”
Jessie stole it later that day. A born con-man. Convincing me to let him ride it around the block.
“Look I just want to ride it around the block. I just wanna hear this baby purr.” He sounded cool as his r’s rolled on the purrrr. But I wasn’t convinced.
“Fuck no!” I said.
“Tell you what. I’ll leave my shoes here with you. That way you know I’ll come back.” Deal?” He kicked off his grimy Keds in my direction. And with that act of chivalry how could I possibly refuse?
He pedaled away. As I analyzed his rotten sneakers, an anxiety rose in my gut. He didn’t care about those shoes. Though just a boy, Jessie Crick was a man. And real men don’t care about shoes. I kicked the shoes around in the gravel, watching the dust jump and settle around them. I thought about the hell that awaited me at home. My father seeing me bike-less from the window. Racing outside. Interrogating me on its whereabouts, and killing me when I couldn’t provide an adequate answer. I avoided it until dusk. Kicking at those unwanted shoes and cursing Jessie Crick.
I went home. It didn’t go as I had foreseen it, but it went pretty bad. My father called me a “chump.” Told me I needed to toughen up, and complained about having to go to the trailer-homes at the bottom of St. Anne’s Hill. I offered to go along as an act of solidarity.
“This kid’s tough dad! You’re gonna want back-up.” We were in this together, I thought. He glared back at me and grabbed his coat.
When he returned he locked the bike up in the garage.
“You’ll get it back when you smarten up,” which I guess was about two weeks later.
You were the small-town scapegoat. You were the kid that represented what everyone else wasn’t. The hooligan. The menace. The no-name nuisance. You owned it too. You took everything they spewed at you and held it deep within yourself. You let it build and build like a house filling with CO2. Slowly numbing you out. Becoming toxic. You held on until you felt like you were going to explode. Then. You did.
The next time I saw Jessie, I got nervous. Not because of our last encounter. Well, not entirely. My nerves came from the knowledge that we were soon going to be locked in a basement for the night. It was the annual Watertown Parks and Rec, movies and lock-in. Pretty self-explanatory I suppose. For just ten dollars you can rest assured that your children will be locked away safe and sound. A small price to pay for a night of guaranteed serenity.
I tried to avoid eye-contact, but he honed in on me anyhow. I could feel my palms start to sweat as he approached. I clenched my fists, pushing the perspiration out and down the crevices around my pinkies.
“Hey bike-boy!” I been lookin for ya.” I was frozen. Unable to look up. I just stared down at his feet. He was wearing those same scrungy sneakers that had burned me in trade before. His big toe was now sticking up out of his left shoe.
“Yah? Why? Cuz yer a Jerk?” I couldn’t believe the words that had come out of my mouth. Was I crazy? Jerk? Did I have some kind of death wish? This Crick is a convicted bike-thief. If he’s capable of that, then god knows what else. I was dead.
He laughed and tapped my shoulder. I shuddered. Hard.
“Take it easy bike-boy. I ain’t gonna hurt’cha. Besides. I only wanted to apologize is all. You left before I could give ya yer ride back.” Of course we both knew this wasn’t true, but I knew that this was the best peace offering I was going to get, and I took it.
“Yah well. I knew that. I just had to get home is all. I figured it’d be easier if my Dad just drove over and picked it up later.” Which of course we also both knew was bullshit, but the air had seemingly been cleared. Then he blindsided me.
“Your dad’s a pretty cool guy.” He reached down and grabbed my sleeping bag, starting to inspect it. I watched him nervously, and imagined spending the night shivering—bag-less.
“Yah? Why’s that?” I asked. He threw my sleeping bag into my chest. Thank God, I thought.
“I don’t know queer! He just is. Grab your shit and lemme show you where the best spots to set up is.” He struck out towards the basement. It looked haunted, but I followed him.
That night Jessie showed me what it meant to be savvy. To embrace one’s wild nature. He showed me my first switchblade, and how to carve my name and words like “boner,” and “nazi” into the bathroom stalls.
“What’s a nazi?” I asked.
“A nazi is an asshole,” he replied.
“Like a butt-hole?” I was too caught up on the anatomy-end of it all.
“No moron. Like a shit-head. Like that guy is an asshole. Like my dad is a nazi. Get it?” He held onto the back of my neck and looked hard-deep into my eyes. God I was so uncomfortable. He had my neck in one hand and a knife in the other. I couldn’t look away, so I just closed my eyes.
“You blinked.” He laughed and stabbed a roll of toilet paper with his trusty blade.
Later that night we laid awake after everyone had fallen asleep. Jessie had stashed some contraband behind a stack of old gym mats; a container of cheese-balls, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. He showed me how to add just the right amount of Tabasco drops to each ball, and then let them dissolve in on my tongue. He pulled out some crinkled underwear adds from a J. C. Penney catalog, and told me about a woman’s wants and needs. He told me about masturbation, and I pretended to understand. Then he asked me about the future.
“What do you think you’re gonna do when you grow up?” We were laying on our backs looking up at the missing foam ceiling tiles, which exposed some rusty pipes and wiring.
“I dunno. I never really thought about it.” I had of course, but I was too nervous to say. I wanted to be a Beatle. I’m still glad I didn’t say it. “How about you? I asked, still staring up.
“Something else. I don’t care what neither. Just something else. Something other than this bull-shit.” I could feel him looking over at me, so I turned my head and looked back. He was lost somewhere, and he was mad about it.
“But what?” I asked. He smiled and looked back up at the ugly ceiling.
“Doesn’t really matter does it.”
You were the talk of the town. You were on the cover of the Public Opinion for six months. Watertown’s wild-child. The problem with youth in America. The arbiter of bad taste. Poster boy for the crime of the century. You were the son of a bitch that everyone thought you were. That everyone knew you’d be. You proved them all right.
When I heard Jesse was involved in the murder. I can’t say that I was surprised. He had grown rougher over the years since we bonded in that rec-hall basement. Eventually he had stopped shouting “Hey bike-boy” when he would see me in the halls at school, and just walk past on his way. Eventually, I stopped seeing him at school all together, except the occasional run-in before or after school, when I’d see him smoking cigarettes in some beat-to-shit muscle car in the parking lot.
I heard it early in the morning, while I was changing out of my gym uniform.
“You hear Crick did it? Pudgy little Sam Grunde said as he leaned over my locker. His jiggly white chest pressing into the locker door, indenting a red line over breasts.
“Did what?” I asked. I was annoyed. I didn’t like staying in the locker room for extended periods of time. If you were caught not showering, Coach Sharp would force it upon you , and I wasn’t comfortable with my body. Puberty wasn’t kind. It had left me with a patchy band of chest hair, and stretch marks covering most of my back.
“That hammer murder across from the library. He did it. The cops just came and took him away. Crazy huh?” He slid his tounge across his teeth as he smiled. He knew he had some serious dirt today, and it was early, and he was proud.
“Yah that’s crazy. You’re full of shit, but yah, crazy.” I twisted his nipple and slammed my locker. “He’s gonna mess you up if he hears you spreading this nonsense, by the way.” I ran out past the coach’s office, keeping my head down.
But it wasn’t nonsense. Well not completely. Jesse had been there. But that was all. At least that’s what he claimed. The two girls he was with they were the ones that killed the old man with the claw hammer. But he didn’t know that was gonna happen. He thought they were just gonna rob him. Grab his social security check and cash it. Easy Peasy. But the old man came home and they did whatever it was they did. He was in the car. He didn’t see nothing. Just the blood when they came out, and they said that it was just a fight was all.
He was charged as an adult with accessory to second degree murder, and was convicted. He received five years in the Yankton Penitentiary, with two years suspended and two years already served. He did ten months. I had forgotten all about him, until the day he got out, and the night he showed up at my back door.
I heard the back screen-door open, and the stairs creak as someone descended them to the basement. This wasn’t alarming as I was used to people visiting me as they pleased. Now that I was a sixteen-year-old man and all, replete with my father’s basement to do with as I pleased. It was quite the pleasure palace, what with a black and white Zenith and Pop’s old waterbed. I walked over to the staircase and standing at the base was Jessie Crick. I had the same nervous gut I had all those years ago, when I stared at those shoes.
“Hey bike-boy,” he said. He looked tough. Well, he always looked tough, but this was a new version I hadn’t seen on him before. He looked scared-tough, like he was protecting his life with his face.
“Hey Jessie. What’s up?” What’s up? I couldn’t muster up anything better I suppose.
“Not much. I just spent time in prison for killing someone.” He was blunt, that’s for sure. I could hear my father walking around upstairs.
“Yah, but I heard you didn’t do it.” I was trying not to look at him. I was praying my father wouldn’t come downstairs.
“What do you think?” He asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked back.
“Do you think I’m a murderer?” His eyes looked like they were about to break open and spill out. Tears streaming down, soaking his chest, sending a flood past my bare feet.
“No,” I replied. He called me a liar, and stared past me.
“Does it really matter?” I asked. He just kept staring past me. Then directly at me. Like the time he held my neck those years back.
“Your dad ever tell you about the time he got your bike back?” I was confused. What the hell is he talking about, I thought.
“Not really.” I said, as he started back up the stairs.
“You should ask him about that sometime. Later bike-boy.” He turned and walked out the back screen-door, holding it, until it shut. Letting it close gingerly behind him.
When my father came down and asked what the commotion was, I denied anyone was ever there.
I never saw you alive again. The next time I saw you was seventeen years later in that picture in the news article. You were murdered over some small town drug-beef. Forced to jump out of moving car. Killed over some misdemeanor. Over someone who said what to whom. It doesn’t matter how it happened though I suppose. You were always meant to be the people’s sacrifice. Hung for an image too closely resembling their own. You were their bad blood, and you had to be purged. So it doesn’t really matter how. It just had to happen, and it had to be you. You are our denial, existing only in the blue-purple horizon line, where the dirt is kicked up into dust.
H Freiwald, 2016