You Better Than Us?

by Eric Symphorosa

Casper and I on opposite ends of the couch, waiting, sighing, shifting, tapping tempos with our shoes on the dirty carpet, just waiting, watching the news in silence, not talking anymore since our very first, friendly, curious, just-met conversation degenerated into opposition and debate as seems to happen too often now, just trying for patience and calm while he tried for... I don't know, I have no idea why some people act the way they do.

Charlie, Charlie, where the hell is Charlie? Where's that little chigger? Where does he get off leaving me with this dude for two hours! Ten minutes, says Charlie, leaving. Fuck ten minutes—two fuggin' hours, Charlie you fuck-head! Two hours on a couch with this Opposite!

Just then there is a rattle at the front door...the sound of a key in the lock finally and the door swings in and here's Charlie, pulling his key out of the lock, grinning at us and saying hey with smiling eyes and following him in the door are two more dudes, one of whom I think I've seen before.

I lean forward on the couch, ready to get up and roll, now that fuckhead's finally back. But he grins right past me and into the kitchen, saying as he passes: "Guys, this is Marka and Donovan. Some guys I know from Tech." And gone into the kitchen, turning on a light. I don't sit back; I'm just about ready to get really pissed off.

Marka and Donovan stand dumbly watching the TV from just inside the closed front door with their hands in their coat pockets; I'm watching them from the tops of my eye sockets, my face still watching the news, and I see them look at each other, one of them mumbles: "Diawanna siddown?" and the both of them do, taking seats on the ground, on dirty no-longer-beige carpet that I feel uncomfortable letting my shoes touch. They sit close enough for me to smell them—hair grease and b.o. and stale coughy cigarettes... I have to put my hand up to my face and start breathing through my mouth. They watch the news with us. I don't know which is Donovan and which is Marka.

On the TV now there is a piece on the Apollyon in Africa with some guy talking about something... But what I'm looking at is the dusty, dark, little bodies being dumped into fires by astronauts in dump trucks. The rim of the fire-lake is crowded with mangy yellow trucks like it’s a water hole for beat machines who tip their mouths down for a drink of fire and bodies roll out. More thirsty/full spotted machines always backing in and others just pulling away, raising their mouths back up as they go. Africa is hallucinatory in the heat. Shiny silvered air.

"Now, the question is," says the unruffled man and now I'm listening, staring, "not how many already dead but how many soon-to-be." And the camera turns a slow three hundred and sixty degrees, panning the quarantine camp—panning the black dusty people flopping and snapping on the dusty ground. It is enough to make a fist of my stomach. "Thomas Busch, NBC News, Sudan."

Either Marka of Donovan snuffles his wet nose, and in the kitchen Charlie is grinning to someone on the phone. I feel sick. Casper on the other end of the couch keeps me from rising and closing myself in the bathroom. He would know and for some reason that bothers me.

I take a deep breath, cough, another breath, try to clear my mind. The next story is about the GLR who last night pounded another town, some town in Wisconsin, messily shaving off most of its downtown, stomping out it's police precinct, erasing its airport... Reports are of the usual—a combination of planted plastique and dynamite and mortars puffed in from the surrounding hills. Sufficient, yes. Five hundred found dead so far and only twenty hours later. How many more? Just have to wait and see. How many more? As many as it takes they say. As many as it takes. The next story is on the rising cost of medical care in most major metropolitan areas. Then comes this story about the Theeton Guilt and another law it is opposing in some court somewhere. Goddamn Guilt. It would feel violated by a handshake, sullied by a long glance. But yet it's true you know: every law ever devised, due to some sort of expert ability in our founding fathers and sheer maliciousness in our present lawscribes, really was designed to somehow inhibit the Guilt's freedom. Really.

Fuggin' Guilt. If the GLR really wants to do something useful I've got an idea: blow the faces off those whiners and then take their balls off. Goddamn. High Guilt Grayton was interviewed as he left the courthouse and ranted of the injustices and how the Guilt was a slow drip onto the stone floors of G. that would wear a groove so deep that blah, blah, blah, blah...his usual spiel. The hand that he used to smooth his windblown hair was missing its index finger down to the second knuckle. Only half of one finger given up to contrition! What a pure man! What an exceptional man! How holy!

The next story was something about rain in Texas but then Charlie breezes back into the room, claps his hands once and says all right boys, everything's set, let's go. The TV flicks off and four guys stand up, only two of whom know each other and that's Donovan and Marka, the two who came together. We follow tall thin grinning Charlie in his black, badass leather jacket and steel-toe boots, out the front door, into the cold, down the cement steps and onto the sidewalk... striding. I look up at the citypink and starless sky, shove my hands into my coat pockets and fall into rear position in the sidewalk armada which is Charlie up front, Casper right behind him, then the auto-shop twins Don and Marka, and then me. The four of us: big, focused, marching in the night which means we are strong and important, the four of us, chosen for this mission and everyone watching us from their dark windows, is watching silently...

Breathe, breathe, breathe vapor—phantoms from my mouth, my cheeks chilly blush pink, my ears hurting... I wish I hadn't cut my hair short. Kept my hair long and warm like Charlie in front of me, looking like a leader, his dark hair shoulder-long and showing shades of golden red as he passes under the streetlights, his boots, thwap, thwap on the concrete. Leader! Yeah, this is his operation, we’re just his goons. Most of the time I'm his friend and I guess these other guys are too, even that dude Emetic. Tonight yeah, we're his goons though. Alright.

Jefferson City is slow and empty tonight. The cold keeps people in. Oh God is it cold. It's gotta be like thirty degrees out here. Something just hit my face and in the light cone of the sodium lamp up ahead I see tracers. Flurries. Snow. Straight and fast. Oh fuck let this not take long...want to go back inside... Over to the left of us, across the street actually, I see this guy slouched up against a wall of the Civic Center. I would think he's dead but I can see his breath steam; I can't see his face because it's all folded up into his arms and tucked between his knees, steam rolling up around his head, huddled in grime black and army surplus green trying, trying to keep warm while we thump past and he doesn't look up. I fall back a little from the others and don't actually look at the bum as I crawl my fingers down my throat, down past my tonsils, and the familiar gag and clench and then the heat of watery bile as it torpedoes up my esophagus and out my mouth and onto a frosted lawn in a short soupy line. I don't actually look at the bum as I purge but I keep him pictured in my mind; I see him against the wall and then make him stand up, revealing his clothes to be sodden rags, his face bushy greasy, forehead pale, his posture that of someone who spends nights against buildings. Oh, and his eyes! His eyes, blue almost white and glossy and empty as a spring sky, that is what really clinches it and my purge it feels so good...all of my disgust and revulsion, all of that which would be inhibiting comes splurting out onto the grass, steaming...mmmmm, there...I wipe my lips: Cleansed and feeling very good. I smile and look up at the sky.

"What park are we going to again?" I ask, looking briefly at the old bunched-up bum. He told me once before, a few days ago but being as stoned as I was at the time, I can't recall. "Lester Loken." Charlie says, not turning, no smile at all in his voice, serious and proud as the leader of four friend-goons. Charlie's a good guy—he makes me feel strong. The wind swirls snowflakes (more snowflakes! heavier!), gives the cold real teeth, scares the trees. The first time my little brother ever saw snow, he was six years old and came in the door from school bawling his eyes out because the sky was falling and he thought we were all going to die. My mom held him and he kept crying and wouldn't believe what my mom was saying and she made me get him a juice box to drink and finally after like an hour, with the snow thick as milk outside the windows, he went to sleep in her arms, rocking him and smoothing his hair. Sweet, huh? Well, my brother also once tried to kill flies in our house one summer by using a can of hairspray and a cigarette lighter and he set fire to the afghan wall hanging that my grandma had knit for us and almost burned the whole damn house down just in case you thought his stupidity was isolated to the weather.

Walking, walking, occasionally all five sets of our legs keeping perfect syncopation with one another and then someone screws up and the whole thing goes to hell. Tired of walking already; my ingrown toenail is all scrunched up and throbbing inside my left boot but if I'm right, Lester Loken is only another block or two away and I can sit down. And then at the end of the block yes, there it is, dark and full of naked charcoal trees and railroad-tie planters with no flowers and a walking path of flagstone right through the belly of it, illuminated by a string of high orange lamps. At the entrance of the park there is a big wooden sign shaped like a rainbow but not rainbow colored. It says: Lester Loken Recreational Area. Then below that: est. 1976. At the other end of the park, I know there’s a swing set and teeter totter and slide and stuff like that but we don't go that far; Charlie walks about twenty yards along the flagstones and then cuts out and takes us behind a maintenance shed in the dark and at an angle that can't be seen from the path. I sit down right away and loosen the lace on my left boot; wiggle my sore toe. The ground is hard frozen and burning cold on my ass, maybe just as bad as living with the toe. "We shouldn't have to wait long, Charlie says looking at his wrist piece. "Maybe five minutes. He's supposed to come through here a little after eight." "Why does he come through here?" I ask. "He has drivers' ed. This is the way he walks home. Charlie checks the time on his wrist again. "Is he going to be alone?" "Yeah, I think so."

It's snowing for really for real now, big fluffy clumps of snowflakes the size of golf balls falling and melting in my hair, running icy wet down the back of my neck. Snowing so hard now that the trees and the houses surrounding the park fade and then disappear. I feel walls grow around us. Snow makes a sound too. I'd never knew that. It makes a hissing sound. "Looks like your Emetic friend's a gimp," I say, pointing out Hermon to Charlie. Hermon, on the ground rubbing his toes, gives me a look but says nothing. Charlie also says nothing but glances at Hermon out of the corner of his eye and then checks his watch again. His hand is shivering. I hope it's from the cold. He shakes his coat cuff back down over the watch and then puts the shaking hand back in its pocket. Probably just the cold.

"That right? You an Emetic, dude?" says either Donovan or Marka to me. "Yes," I say and it comes out bright like a cloud in front of my face. "Smile for me." "Huh?" "Smile for me. I wanna see your teeth." I show him; grin big and merry right at him, give him a grin that would put Charlie to shame which throws Don/Marka off for a second because I know he's talking down to me and he knows I know. He bends close to look at my mouth: "How come your teeth ain't all fucked up? I thought you's supposed to have rotted teeth. My cousin's Emetic and all his teeth are like little fuckin' baked beans. He's gotta eat just soup and bread and shit like that cause he's got no teeth." "Ummm....I have thirteen cavities if that helps, probing a molar with my tongue, rough metal, the tang from that last purge still in my mouth and throat. Oh, and yes, you're right, most us have severely compromised oral health. It's just that I was only received a year ago and so really haven't been doing it long enough."

"Stupid if you ask me," and I can sense it coming, twice in one night. "I wouldn't want my teeth all fucked up like that." "I dunno why you fuckers do all that puking. It don't make no fucking sense." This was coming from the other one, the other grease-boy. "Ummm... I can explain it to you if you want or—" "I can explain it to you," I interrupt, smiling down at Hermon. He gives me another look but says nothing. He's learned not to tangle with me. Donovan and Marka watch me. I put my hands in my pockets and shrug up my shoulders to keep the snow off my neck. "The reason he pukes all the time is because he thinks it makes him better than the rest of us. He thinks it makes him more pure, more clean and efficient.

"You better than us?" asks Don/Marka looking bad at me with his eyes squinted. ", not better. More pure, yes, but—" "How’s it makes you pure?" "It cleanses him of all the shit and dirt he eats every day. He rejects it. It keeps his cheeks rosy and pink and his dreams cheery and his eyes optimistic." ...Casper smiling and sarcastic as all hell and I can't say anything because he got it mostly right even if making it sound like so much ballyhoo and bullshit in the process. Curling anger pictures me breaking Casper's nose with my knuckles and my stomach gurgles... "So if you were going t—" "Shhhh!" hisses Charlie, pulling his head back from around the corner of the shed and Don/Marka shuts his mouth. "He's coming." "Surround him, right?" Whispered.... A nod in response. "Get ready."

Charlie leaps out from the shadows of the shed and out of my sight. I push myself to my feet and scramble out to join him and the other three guys thinking that maybe it's started already but Charlie's just standing in front of two dudes and he's talking to one of them. Dan and Marka are on either side of the two dudes and Charlie says: "Bullshit!" as I swing around to cover the back. "Two weeks ago I gave you three-hundred dollars for an ounce and a half of 'shrooms!" "Yeah but—" "Shut up!" Charlie barks at the dude. No grinning now. I can't see the face of the guy Charlie's talking at because I'm behind him, preventing his turn around and run but it must look scared. Violence is a thing to be tasted in the air and sometimes you might not know what it is but at night in the park with four guys surrounding you, you know what it is.

I don't know who the dude with him is but I know he tastes it too because he drops the book he's carrying—Motor Vehicle Safety Manual is what it's called—it hits the ground and he doesn't bother to pick it up, doesn't look at it like he's afraid it will call attention to him or even something. I remember that my shoe is still untied and look down at it. "Three hunderd dollars and for two weeks all’s I get are lies and dodges from you. So now, all I'm going to do is ask you one question." Charlie pauses..."when I hold out my hand are you going to drop three hunderd dollars or a bag of ‘shrooms into it?" A pause. Thinking, thinking hard standing in the cold orange park with snow floating down around his head. Maybe doesn't know exactly how many guys are around him but he can sense that it's enough. He's never liked cold or snow or even dark for that matter. What a shitty night. "I can't..." he starts and that's enough; Charlie whipsnaps his foot and catches the guy square in the gut. The guy makes a sound like puhh! and falls to his knees. Charlie kicks him again in the side of the head and I don't have a word for the sound that makes. The guy sort of tips over and crumples at the same time.

In the same instant his friend jumps and turns to run and runs directly into me, our foreheads smashing together—white-shock explodes in my skull. I clutch my head and stumble backwards, growling through my teeth, nearly fall to the ground but instead squat, squeezing my forehead with my palms as hard as I can, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to push the pain out, growling. Distantly I hear feet shuffling, scraping. There are slaps and grunts and then a body crashes down in front of me and startles me back onto my ass. I open my eyes which sparks another nova of pain and the dude is on his hands and knees not a foot away, like he's waiting for the axeman's blade. I see the legs of the others a little further. My hands are behind me on the frozen stones but don't need them... my head is squeezing itself just fine. Now the guy's got one foot planted back under him again and is slowly, slowly pushing himself up and forward. And you just know he's thinking: I’ll get out of this. I'm good. I'll get out of this, run away...but I scuttle forward like a crab and give a kick to the underside of his nose and the guy's head snaps back and my unlaced boot flies straight up into the air and gets lost in the snowy dark and his arms fold like cloth and his face snaps down onto the flagstones and my boot lands right next to me and bounces off into the dark again.

Smoke comes from my mouth. Someone giggles. I'm not sure who but I am sure it was neither of these two guys on the ground, not the one back there and not the one face down on the stones in front of me. If he giggled, blood would come up instead of sounds and looking at him, my mouth smoking, maybe he is laughing. Maybe it was him.

Charlie runs and fetches my boot. "All right guys, we gotta get out of here," he says while I slowly lace my boot, one knee frozen on the ground, my forehead feeling strange and tight and my eyeballs aching. I'm still looking at the guy as I lace. He hasn't moved yet.
And then comes this sound which makes me look up; the others hear it too, their alert heads staring further down the path, further into the park, maybe thirty feet, a shadow in the hissing snow, a man bent over at the waist retching, making unnecessarily loud sounds. We watch. He stops; turns his head to look at us, hands on knees, then is jolted by another gag and goes: blahhhh! back to vomiting. "Fuck!" says Casper and tears off running away. He bolts toward the wooden sign at the entrance to the park. He doesn't look back to see if Charlie and Don/Marka and me are following him but we are, my bootlace flailing and ticking on the flagstones. He is so far ahead of us though that after a minute I lose him in the dark and the falling snow. We run, we run: out of the park, down the middle of the slippery white street, tearing back toward Charlie's house at full speed, and while my body could not be more focused on that, the simple act of running away, my mind lingers back in the orange dark, back over those strange bodies beaten soft on the cold ground, one of whom (the guy I kicked) is moving a little now, mumbling in his sleep and mindlessly flexing the fingers of his left hand.

I look closer at his face, peering through the dark and the snow landing gently on him, and see how badly we split it up, the wrong shadows of it. Blood is black and thick as tar in the cold dark and right then, even as I run away, I feel the bile revolt in my stomach and begin its quick march up my gullet, reaching my mouth even before I can smile.

My mind jumps and races from the park to catch up with me. I didn't even use my fingers! Yahh! I'm nearly an Echelon Two!