You know, this seems like the exact kind of situation people would have written books about handling.
Joining a gang?
No. Well, yeah, that too.
How to look taller?
No! I mean, maybe, but . . .
Wait, are we short?
We’re young! And that isn’t what I meant anyway!
What situation were you talking about?
Trying to make friends.
Oh. Yeah, I agree. There are probably books about that.
Feels like we are doing pretty well with Benji?
Um, are you suggesting that jumping on people should be our go-to friending strategy?
Well, that sounds ridiculous.
Benji swung Kid around by the shoulder and they headed over to join the other younger boys. The four boys in the corner looked up as the pair approached, giving each group plenty of time to observe the other.
Leaning into the corner of the room, a boy so skinny he might have been just bone, no muscle at all, looked up with a grin peeking over his cell phone. At his side two boys slouched on the floor, leaning up against the wall. They were holding playing cards, taking turns grabbing one from the face down stack between them, and then throwing one onto the face up stack next to it. The last of the group, sitting on a flipped plastic crate, was the smallest, the same boy that Twitch had told Kid to fight on the night he’d auditioned for membership.
Looks less angry?
Um. Still angry.
Well, this should be fun.
I don’t think that word means what you think it means.
Benji waved a hand across the group, tossing out words as his hand passed the individual Kid guessed belonged to the word.
“Rojo,” Benji indicated the small one on the crate, “Mike and Mojo, and Chubz.” He ended on the wire thin boy in the corner. Kid tried to raise an eyebrow. Failed.
“Chubz,” Kid asked, “Um, you look…”
“Like ‘e ain’t even visited food in like, eight fucken years?” Mojo piped up, to the laughter of the rest, including Chubz.
“Jus’ thinks ‘e’s clever,” Mike threw in, “plus he digs fat chicks.”
Chubz just shrugged, a slow smile creeping up his face as his hands echoed the movement in a shrug.
“Y’all doan kna,” Chubz said, shaping a pillowing frame with his hands, “how much mo’e a big woman brings a’da table.”
Rojo chuckled, “Break tha damn table.”
“That’s fun, too,” Chubz grinned.
“Plus,” added Mojo, “Du’e pops wood at the fuggen weirdest times.”
The others bust up laughing as Chubz dropped his hands and his grin.
“Hey,” Chubz protested, “it’s a fucken blood flow thin’, and you fuckers know that!”
Act like they act?
Ask questions, get them talking about themselves. Don’t people like talking about themselves?
Other people, I mean. People with memories probably have more to talk about.
Kid laughed when the others did, and turned toward the one he thought Benji had called Mojo.
“And you?” Kid asked.
“Fucken right,” Mojo slumped further against the wall, like his bones had just dissolved, “The rhythm by which pimps groove through life, tha’ aw’som’ power-sauce.”
“Not a clever name, then,” Kid said.
“Fuck no! Too much work, thinkin’ o’ shit.”
Mojo turned to grin at Mike, and threw his collection of cards on the floor, numbers and faces showing.
Mike’s face wrinkled as he stared at the cards Mojo had spread, threw his cards to the floor, and pushed himself to his feet.
“Fuckoff,” Mike said as he stood, “We’s doin’ meets.” He looked over at Kid, and continued, “Fucker cheats, anyway.”
Kid looked down at Mojo, who flashed a quick grin and leaned to the side to show Kid the three cards he stashed under a leg.
“Tha’in’t what ‘is name mean’s, be-ta-dub.”
“Aw, fuckoff, Mike.”
The prone boy slapped a lazy kick against the standing youth’s calf.
Um, do we have any idea at all what is going on?
No. I mean, no, right Fuzz?
I got lost at the fat chicks? Try asking more questions.
“So,” Kid looked around the group, “are you guys all in the gang?”
“How the fuck you think we got in the fucken room, dumbass?”
Rojo sneered at Kid, then looked back at his phone. Benji waved a hand at him.
“Don’t min’ him,” Mojo said, “He’s dick to ev’ryone, on tha muscle. And, we’re all with the gang, but maybe not in, yet.”
He pointed over to where the group Twitch had joined was standing, now gathered around a guy who was making with his mouth all the sounds that had been coming out of the phone earlier while the others kept rhyming along, shoving words into the beat in fits and spurts.
“The walking stereo o’er ther’s our big homie.”
Mojo waved a hand between himself and Mike. Kid scrunched his face in the middle.
“We’re brothers,” Mike explained, like the thought left a bad taste in his mouth, “I’m older.”
“I’m funnier,” Mojo quipped.
“You’re stupider,” Mike shot back.
“Tha’s not a word, dumbass.”
“No,” Kid interrupted, “That wasn’t . . . uh, big homie?”
“Fuck,” Rojo said, “Why the fuck’d Twitch front this shit.”
Kid looked at him, then around at the others.
Um. Should we fight him now?
Maybe the jumping really should be our friending strategy?
We didn’t have to jump on Twitch?
Yeah, but we still don’t understand how that happened, either.
“Shu’the fuckup Roj.”
Benji pronounced the ‘j’ like the one in his own name, like a shortening of Roger, as opposed to the ‘h’ sound of Rojo. Rojo bristled, curling into a tighter ball of festering resentment.
Wow. He’s like a tiny bucket of fury.
Is he angry about being told to shut up, or the butchering of his name?
He’s close enough to the wall that we could try the same thing we did to Benji.
Um, none of the others are acting like this is in any way unusual. Maybe we roll with it for a bit before the jumping?
Benji explained, “Your big homie is Twitch, he’s a one who vouched for you.”
“Got you in the room,” Chubz said.
“Get’s fucked up if you fuck up,” Mojo added.
“Or drops your card if it gets called,” said Rojo.
Kid’s face scrunched a bit more in the middle, and twisted. Mike waved at the others to cede the floor to him. Mojo tucked his feet under him as Chubz shuffled deeper into the corner and Rojo nestled deeper into his scowl. Mike stood in the central space with the stance of a practiced expositor: feet together, spine straight. One hand held flat, palm to the ceiling, the other hand perched on the open palm upon two fingers.
“It’s like this: Twitch,” Mike wiggled the fingers of the palm-base, “spoke for you,” Mike bounced the standing-hand upon the platform, “so anytime you fuck up,” the standing-hand bent at the knuckle-knees and jump from the palm-base in a little flip up to the side of Chubz’s head, where the middle finger flicked against an ear before whipping back to plant on the palm-base, which Mike then raised to present the rejoined pair to face Chubz’s retributive smack, “it’s on the both of you,” The palm-base tipped, dropping the standing-hand to swing down to Mike’s side, “An’ Twitch can cut you off whenever du’e feels.”
The nods echoing around the little circle validated the older boy’s explanation as he stepped out of the center and slid down the wall to rejoin his brother on the floor.
“I ‘as fuggen flipped,” Mojo said, “when you roll’d in t’night wit’out him.”
Chubz nodded, “Bold move. I still ain’t come without Deedee,”
He flicked a chin toward a guy who seemed to be passed out on one of the couches between game table and the recliners.
Ok. THAT would have been nice to know earlier.
I wonder if there is a book with these rules.
We already tried that, remember.
Maybe we just grabbed the wrong book? Why wouldn’t there be a book about this?
Well, since we don’t have the right book, how about we try to understand what these guys are telling us, right now?
Good call. Attend.
“Um, so what happens if I, um…”
“Fuck up?” Mojo supplied, “D’pends how bad. Us’lly we jus’ beat the shi’ outta ya.”
“No big deal,” Mike shrugged, “But you really fuck up,”
“Steal from the boss,” Chubz said.
“Fuck up a big job,” added Benji.
Mike continued, “Maybe you get shot.”
“Or Twitch does,” Mojo said.
“Or,” Rojo looked over the top of his phone, “They give you to the Beast.”
The smiles drop, and the boys who were standing shuffled feet about while exchanging fleeting and fretting glances. Kid looked over at the back of the two recliners, both now spun to face the television. Kid knotted his brow, looking around at the other boys. Mojo spoke.
“Here’sa thin’bou’ Ilk. See, most of us some kinda fucked up or another, right, but Ilk, he got done for some real shit whe’ he was like, what, 16?”
“Some bullshit, too,” Mojo’s brother chimed.
“Righ’?” Mojo nodded, “eight fuckers roll a car af’er a foo’ball game, an’ th’brotha’s only one catches the book? Get’s thrown in witha lifers, nugge’s who give zero fucks. He was already a big fucker, so they lef’ him alone, most’y. ‘At’s where he got’at name, though. He’as still a kid, right, coul’n’ grow a fuzz’a sav’a suck.” Mojo grabbed his own smooth cheek in a tugging pinch. “Star’ed callin’im Sweet Silk. Well, y’hear’ the du’e talk,” heavy head shake, “Fucker had’a start beatin’ fools down until’ey dropp’d the ’s’. ‘At’s how’e go’tha name. Bu’tha’ ain’t what got du’e twisted. See, while he’s in ther’ they bring in this hermy. You know, one o’ them fuckers got both parts?”
Mojo held a hand up, dangling his first finger out of a closed fist, wiggling it while he took his other hand and poked at the hole beneath the dangling finger.
Um. Do we have any idea at all what that means?
Mike slapped his brother across the chest hard enough to produce a resounding thunk and an accompanying glare. Rolling up onto a knee Mike leaned over to whisper in Kid’s ear. As he whispered Kid’s face scrunched, then twisted, then stretched as he tried to process what the older boy was explaining to him. When Mike pulled back Mojo continued.
“Well the prison, they coul’n’t throw it in with the chicks, right, cause it’s got a”
The boy’s voice cut off under the opposition of his brother’s hand, fingers splayed across Mojo’s face. Mike’s sigh was thick with exasperation.
“Jus’ stop,” he looked from Kid to his under brother, “you know Kid ‘on’t un’erstan’ what you’re talkin’ bou’. Wha’e’er you bou’a say is jus’ fer your own en’ertainmen’ and that shit ain’ helpful or ‘propriate, an’is disrespectful to every fucken par’y involved. I got this.”
Mike leaned close a second time and conveyed the relevant information about gender segregation functioning only when everyone could be shoved into a binary categorization.
The rest of the boys had gotten quieter, if that was possible. When Mike finished he pulled his hand away from his brother’s mouth and lowered himself back to sit on the floor. After a short moment, Mojo spoke again, softer.
“Thanks,” he inclined his head to Mike, and returned his attention to Kid, “They is places can han’le ‘at kin’a shit better. Put ‘em in isolation or somethin’. This wa’n’t one of those places. It became a kind o’ reward. Guards woul’ take bids to get assigned to share that room. Ilk had the next cell over. Had’a listen’a that every fucken night for, like, four years. Somethin’ in ther’ snapp’d.”
“An’en’ey let that fucker back out in the real world.”
Rojo glared over at the recliners, then looked away quick, sneer tugging at the corner of a nostril.
Um, did you guys just…
Not the time.
“We’s all some kinda fucked,” Mojo said, “but he’s all fucken twisted deep, on the inside.”
“Where it counts,” Mike finished.
The conversation drifted, as conversations tended to do among male adolescents of the era, into topics so foreign to Kid as to leave him without even the faint footholds in the exchange that he had enjoyed heretofore. He could at least tie some of the earlier concepts to concrete things with which he was familiar, understanding the way his relationship to Twitch functioned in the context of the group, the tiers of punitive escalation, the infectious pustule at the heart of Ilk’s ever present ire.
As a boy who had only ever engaged in the entertainment industry that dominated so much of the sociocultural landscape of the day in the most cursory fashion, snatching glances at screens through bars and windows while meandering past electronics stores, Kid was dropped right out of his depth when the topic veered to the latest video game craze.
While the particulars of the game mechanics and the intrigues of the associated technosocial community held little interest for Kid, the easy camaraderie and joviality of the group kneaded at the knots of tension that Kid hadn’t even realized he was carrying, soothing his pent up anxiety almost the way a familiar lullaby might unlock the doors of worry barring access to the halls of sleep.
The diminished cognitive burden of following the conversation freed up attention cycles for alternate designation, but no matter how much Kid tried to push that attention somewhere pleasant, either imagining the digitized playground the others were describing or even revisiting his pleasant conversation at the sandwich shop, a single image kept forcing its way to the forefront of his mind.
The flickering sneer that never left Rojo’s face, and the deep, feral terror that tinged his gaze whenever it crept toward the back of the room, where two recliners sat, one occupied and the other full.