The thing with the clothes developed after a game of bowling, and, naturally, it took place at the alley with the best potential for playing and not paying. The old Gully Lanes on the South Side was a smoke-filled emporium of misused grandparents prone to ignoring everyone (and thing) outside their immediate sphere of competition. They lined the plastic, form-fitting booths, waiting for the brief thrill of hurling an 8lb ball at ten pins poised in a perfect triangle at the other end of the wide hall with low ceilings. The proprietor never set foot in the establishment—considered the place low-class. So, in his place at the front desk, sat idly, a twenty-something with a homemade haircut and an attitude, who didn’t lift a brow when three fourteen-year-olds came in asking for a lane and shoes.
If the three of them had to look back and assess the main event that led to the thing with the clothes, it would be that first visit, right around the time they were deciding to leave, in that five to ten minutes of delay—before sifting through crumpled bills but after the last half-ass pin toss—which didn’t feel too much different from buyer’s remorse but without the complete dissatisfaction of the full transaction. Hence the delay. And in that delay the idea boiled over. It seemed to appear from somewhere in their combined guts, truly a group effort. And as it emerged, they were quick to grab on to it, mold it, give it a name: Ditching the Bill, Free Bowling. (They weren’t clever kids; it was mainly about the spirit, anyway.)
They changed shoes quickly, somewhat reluctant but willing, using the tangle of laces as an excuse to buy time, looking to one another, jeering for sympathy, feigning mischief. It was Chuck who first set the bar, discovered the bar really. (There was no bar before something from the collective-gut made him create a bar to be set.) Chuck, still wearing the chunky red and blue suede bowling shoes, just up and walked out, his own dirty C. Taylors forked in one hand at his side, one foot in front of the other, up the two steps to the upper level—a spectator’s area of sorts with clusters of chairs and circular tables, all scattered and empty—and up into the haze of cigarette smoke hugging the low ceiling. The upper level was somewhere between a stage and bleachers, half spectacle, half spectator, but it didn’t matter, because everyone in the place was somewhere else to begin with. The grandparents at the other end were involved in last chance vendettas, much too engaging for Chuck to even know about, even if he chanced a glance over his shoulder, which he didn’t dare—just one foot over the other, the smoke burning his eyes slightly, the faint smell of baby powder in the air as he leaned against the swivel glass doors, heavily tinted, and stepped into the light of day.
This was their first time bowling just the three of them, and they only went a handful of times all summer. There were other moments, spectacles, too many to account for individually, but combined, impossible to ignore. Summer was and is the main season for young people to develop as individuals. They come in off the end of a school year, scholastically numb, unwilling to think or compose or comprehend rationally because it’s almost righteous to declare thought in such pure terms. Days and weeks go by with the disjointed transition of late-night infomercials, at the end of which is a young person who has steadily depreciated for three months. This leads to a certain school of thought that with each passing summer a child doesn’t so much gain age as it does lessen in value.
The thing about that day at the bowling alley, however, the definitive moment, or in this case object, was the bowling shoes, because for some reason or another Chuck took to wearing those shoes everywhere. They began to set a definition. He became the kid who wore the bowling shoes, and as eye witnesses to the christening, Sean and Dennis were included in Chuck’s odd brand of fashion. They felt entitled, really, because at fourteen, Chuck had conjured the interest of girls. This conjuring had mainly to do with his long stringy hair, originally blonde but stained with greens and blues and reds from various hair dying attempts and his thick-rimmed specks of Kurt Money fame and his lazy smile that seemed to cry self-deprecation (not to mention the guidance of two older brothers, which wasn’t so much an asset as an incentive); but for whatever reason, these charms were over-looked by Sean and Dennis, who insisted the newly developed interest was based solely on the newly acquired bowling shoes, which made more sense to Sean and Dennis anyway, because bowling shoes stood out in a crowd and were therefore more noticeable and therefore more attractive to girls—because girls certainly couldn’t be interesting in something they couldn’t see.
They soon began experimenting with strange accessories. Funny-looking hats were an easy way in. The three of them took to thrift stores, combing discount bins for strange fedoras and bowlers. It was Dennis who discovered the full-potential of the thing with the clothes, when he wore a foam helmet for little over a week until a woman at a pharmacy yelled at him for making fun of the handicapped.
The experience was a bit melodramatic, but the woman in question was obviously dealing with some pretty heavy issues of her own. She was sitting near the pharmacist’s window in the back, most likely waiting for her medications when Dennis walked by, heading toward the coolers to get a soda. The woman gave him a disapproving look, but more than a week in, he was well accustomed to those. He was even to a point where he gained a certain amount of satisfaction from the exchange, so much so that after grabbing his soda of choice, Sunkist in a can (because the cans really do taste better), he walked back by the woman and smiled. It was a quick gesture, which to anyone else would have come across as asinine or at the very least submissive, but to the woman in question, it was all she needed to unload her burden of life lessons, which she regurgitated from her beak-like mouth intact and unchewed, whole nuggets of over-processed and deep-fried nonsequitures. As she raised her impish frame from the chair, something deep in Dennis’s gut tightened. His insides crowded near his throat. He felt top heavy and, for some reason, giggly. She asked Dennis repeatedly if he found it funny. The question came at him like a blitzkrieg, a succession of syllables riddled with question marks, to which he insisted that he did not in any way find it funny, but his muffled chuckles seemed to prove otherwise. He stumbled into an aisle and she followed, telling him the differences between right and wrong, and then asking him if he found it funny.
At one point he used an elderly man in the diaper section as a human shield to deflect the woman, but she was spry, much more nimble than Dennis had first thought.
She had yellow eyes and didn’t blink. “My son wears a helmet,” she told him, and asked if he thought that was funny.
He edged out of the aisle not turning his back to the woman. There was a man at the check-out and a young lady behind the register, running a bottle of Armor All over the scanner. They each stopped what they were doing to watch.
The woman was now yelling, reciting verses from the Bible. She shoved Dennis, and he knocked over a display of suntan lotion and fell over the cardboard shelving. In the commotion a man in a blue smock stepped in to calm the woman down. Dennis scrambled to his feet, and dashed out of the pharmacy. He scurried through the sliding doors, sneakers hissing on the sidewalk as he cut around the building and down the street, not noticing the soda still in his hand until he was halfway down the block. It was hard to believe that that had all happened because of the helmet. He adjusted it on his head and fingered the strap. He took a long pull of soda. It tasted good, probably better than if he had stolen it on purpose.
From the very beginning, thievery played a kind of supporting role to the thing with the clothes, giving it depth, a background of sorts, like a thin primer of attitude underneath the stretched-out collars of worn-sheer t-shirts and the frayed stubs of cut-off polyester slacks. The clothes never quite fit, and that was part of it too. They made do with new acquisitions, altering them in the simplest ways, resorting to needle and thread only when absolutely necessary. It was a kind of Survival Of The Fittest that gave purpose to the whole thing with the clothes. Chuck took to it naturally with an almost preternatural instinct for surveillance diversion. That first summer, he had walked out of Wal-Mart wearing three pairs of pants, two Dickies short-sleeve button-ups, a Carhartt jacket, and one of the most ridiculous looking cowboy hats that Sean and Dennis had ever seen. He ended up selling the pants, shirts, and jacket at the second-hand store in the South Side mall for a decent profit. (They wouldn’t take the hat.)
Dennis came to stealing slowly over a few years, first starting small with accessories like rings and weird necklaces, then later bumping it up to clothes and CDs, and eventually, with Chuck and Sean’s help, minor B and E. But it was Sean who really seemed to revel in the five-finger discount. Not because he was necessarily good at it, but because he got a certain amount of satisfaction out of staring down a loss prevention officer or security guard for whom he, Sean, was a dead ringer for a shoplifter: under-aged, un-chaperoned in the liquor aisle—and he was black.
From the very beginning he understood the bias LPs had against him. He noticed quickly the shadow following him around, asking if he needed assistance, reminding him that he only need to ask for help. It was the passive aggression that he really found racist—patronizing the young Negro. It was condescending and rude, and for those reasons he gained the most pleasure from staring down an LP hovering nearby, pretending to straighten something on the endcap, changing a sign or facing wine coolers. He liked to gaze into their cheap smiles, their polo shirts and pleated khakis, their loafers or sometimes black safety shoes; and poke at their shallow, petty stereotypes. They were a sorry lot. He pitied them in a way, but pity wasn’t the same as compassion. So, he stared them down just the same, striking in them the fear of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, demanding his rights, demanding equality through the brilliance of eye contact—eye-to-mind contact—just before tucking a handle of Johnny Walkers Red into the waist of his cut-off slacks and jetting out the door. Granted, he only had to grab and dash a few times, isolated incidents, with special circumstances.
What he really enjoyed was the psychological sport of it, changing their minds, showing them how racist they were with an intimidating stare (and sometimes a few choice words)—basically reconstructing their outlook on modern society, changing their reality. In short, it was a real confidence booster.
The security guards, however, were a different breed, more volatile. With them it was more a test of wills, mano-a-mano, boy versus beast, like a matador waving a red cape as the bull lowers its horns, the white moist heat puffing from its nostrils, unable to control itself, restrained by man’s conventions and contained, isolated, driven to hatred out of fear and desperation. Sean liked to idle near the evangelical spirits of Jim Beam and the Captain, hands in the pockets of his cut-off slacks, shoulders forward, head slung low, reading labels from the middle of the aisle, as if he were luring the beast in with submissive and hesitant pheromones.
The first time he tried this, it wasn’t really planned. He was just wandering in the liquor aisle plotting an escape, when the SG strolled into the same aisle, a tall white guy with a flattop and a bullet-proof vest under his white button-up that seemed to be made to keep his gut in rather than keep bullets out. He did the whole LP routine: he hovered down the aisle, checking labels, then, when he was close enough, asked Sean if he needed any help. His approach was different though. It didn’t have the same condescension as the LPs. The SG was cocky. He lacked finesse. With his thumbs tugging down on the edge of his thick leather utility belt, he leaned over and asked if Sean needed any help, as if to say, “I’ve got you, you little black bastard. Now, get out.” And Sean’s immediate reaction was to answer no and tell the racist bigot off, but he stopped himself—that was just what the SG wanted, to reconfirm his racist stereotypes.
So, Sean lied.
He asked for the SG’s help, told him he was doing research on the distribution of alcoholic beverages to better understand the ratio of liquor stores to the mean annual income of area households. He wanted to see if there was any correlation between the economic status of a neighborhood based on the number of liquor stores in that area. He wanted the exact numbers, and he was counting every bottle of liquor within a ten-mile radius, by hand.
Sean lied through his teeth, then waited for the SG to call his bluff, daring him really, just so he could call him a racist to his face.
The SG cocked his head, the way a dog might when waiting for its owner to throw a tennis ball or Frisbee, then, finally, said, “Alright then,” and even invited Sean to count the backstock in the small warehouse behind the thick metal door labeled Employees Only.
Sean’s head nearly exploded. His mind was blown, and he stumbled a little as he followed the SG to the warehouse. The SG even told him to take his time, a smile of genuine American-Middle manners glazed over his face, a friendly suggestion before spinning on one well-polished heel and sliding back down the hall and out the same door they had come in. Sean walked out of there that day with three handles jammed in his tiny JanSport backpack, slightly chiming as he stepped passed the SG with a smile and a thanks for the help. He would have gotten more but it was all he could manage to smuggle without blowing his cover. And anyway, those handles ended up lasting until school started again in August.
So really, it was the thing with the clothes that blew the door open on this phenomena that Chuck termed “mind manipulation.” In a way it kind of forced them to recognize their effect on other people. Sean had his thing with security guards, Chuck was really getting into the heads of the opposite sex, and Dennis, from the age of fourteen on, battled with the physiological effects of shit-talking.
They had always drawn a healthy amount of criticism from pretty much everyone around them, as three dirty kids from the South Side are wont to do, but it wasn’t until they started wearing a lot of sherbet-toned cut-offs and thermal-lined vests that the smatterings of vitriol came pouring in, and Dennis, as a personal initiative, seemed to attract the brunt of most critiques. At fourteen his ability to intimidate was limited, but it didn’t keep him from trying. He learned quickly the legal implications of an eighteen-year-old beating the life out of a minor, and used the system as if it were a posse silhouetted at his back, arms crossed over the bulging pectorals of the courts. It was always the high school kids that were willing to dish out the most punishment, boys not much older than Dennis, and it didn’t take long for him, Dennis, to realize these little skirmishes were more satisfying in well-populated areas, most often the mall.
It was the North Side mall that would prove most satisfying, where their approval rating, as it would turn out, was very low among the hoards of shoppers that washed across the food court in half-hour tides of ebb-and-flow consumerism. It was clear that the moms and aunts with shopping bags from L. Claiborne and E. Bauer did not wish to sit anywhere near them and wouldn’t hesitate to change seating if Chuck or Dennis or Sean pulled a chair up to a neighboring table, dirty C. Taylors propped in clear view, legs crossed, possibly lounging with hands behind their heads just to emphasize the level of comfort they were currently experiencing and would continue to experience for no telling how long, which was technically a kind of dip-of-the-toe-to-test-the-waters double-m. The day they metaphorically dove head-first was when Chuck left Dennis and Sean at the table to approach two girls in line at Edwardo’s Spiceria, the combination Italian-Mexican fast-foodery.
The line was long, and the two girls were somewhere in the low-teens on the waiting list, which meant they were well into the aisle designated for times of high-traffic, when the lines extending from the wall of eateries converged in the large aisle dividing the open atrium of tables and chairs. The lines sort of dangled from their respective Order Here signs in links of middle-aged and older-type shoppers, curly-headed and/or balding, wearing blouses and pocket-bearing t-shirts tucked into high-waisted stone-washed denim. Teal and fuchsia seemed to be a recurring theme, as well as high-top Reeboks.
The two girls stood out mostly because they weren’t hideously old but also because they were wearing bleached jeans with the blossoming fray of freshly made knee-holes. When Chuck lurched forward in his seat, lowered his hands from behind is head, and dropped his feet to the ground, there was no need to explain, no eye signal to save his seat, no call to dibbs of any kind. Sean and Dennis only watched as Chuck moseyed over to the two girls and asked who they were and what they thought they were doing. Composing one-liner come-ons was beyond Chuck at this point. It made more sense just ask someone he didn’t know who they were and what they thought they were doing, which was usually received with an extreme like or dislike and was, in a way, a really effective compatibility test. The girls on this particular day in July answered with a smile and a few giggles.
Chuck smiled. “No seriously…”
“We’re here with our, uh, parents.”
Kelly jammed her elbow in Gail’s ribs, and Gail smiled. She had a huge mouth and dimples. Kelly scanned the food court, peering from the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t very sly. She had a blue bandana over her short curly hair tied in front like Rosie the Riveter.
Chuck said, “Okay?”
“No, there.” Gail pointed. “That’s them over there. The one with the pink polo is Kelly’s dad. He’s a bit of a pansy.”
“What the hell, Gail?” Kelly yanked at Gail’s bicep and stepped in front of her. “She’s only joking. That’s not my dad.”
“I know—” Gail shoved Kelly aside “— it’s mine. I’m just a little ashamed of him, that’s all.” She glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her head and shook it.
“Cool.” Chuck smiled and touched his glasses. “So what are you doing later?”
Gail glanced up and smiled. Her hair was straight and had a deep almost violet hue. She had a compulsion with tucking it behind her ears. “Why would you like to know?”
“Gail, quit it. C’mon the line is moving. Quit messing with the little boy.”
“But he’s a little gentleman. Look, he wants to play.” She tousled his hair. “Don’t you? Don’t you want to play?”
“Uh, yes. I do want to play.”
“It’s just that, Gail, I don’t want your father to see.”
“Fuck father. Like he cares anyway.”
“Yeah,” Chuck said, “fuck father. Come sit with us.” Chuck pointed to Sean and Dennis sitting back at the table. Sean lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave. Dennis looked when Sean waved, and he added a mild nod and smile.
Kelly said, “How charming.”
“You broads are pretty classy, huh? Where do you go to school?”
“Sophomores at McNamara Bishop. And you?”
They stood for a moment, silent, and they each stepped forward with the line.
“Man,” Chuck said, “this sure is a good time, huh? You two should come over and sit with us.”
“You should ask Gail’s dad. She can’t go without his permission.”
“Okay, sure. You can introduce me, and we’ll like, ask together or whatever.”
“Oh well, we can’t go,” Kelly told him. “We’ll lose our spot in line.”
“So you hold the spot, and Gail, you come with me. Introduce me to your pops.”
“Seriously—” Kelly shifted her weight and rested a hand on her hip “—it’ll just be easier if you go alone.”
Gail sighed and gave Kelly a look. “Yeah, we’ll have a better chance if you ask alone. He’ll think you’re like, a real straight-shooter or something.”
Chuck looked over at the man in the pink polo shirt. His mouth was full, and he was laughing at something someone at the table had said.
“Alright. I’ll be right back.”
The girls smiled.
“We’ll be waiting,” Kelly told him.
Gail’s smile faded to a pucker, and she followed the shoes of the people in line before her.
Chuck made eye contact with Gail’s dad as he walked over, and a variety of emotions washed over his face: confusion, mistaken identity, defensiveness, confusion again. When Chuck reached the table the man was already asking him to leave.
“No, hear me out. Your daughter was just wondering—“
“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want it.”
“What? No. Sir, your daughter—” Chuck pointed over to Gail and Kelly.
“Sir, your daughter, Gail?”
“Honey,” the woman sitting across from Gail’s dad said and placed a hand on Chuck’s forearm, “we’re non-breeders. He doesn’t have a daughter.”
“Okay, well, I don’t know what that means, but I was just talking to a girl and I’m pretty sure she would know if she had a dad or not. And over there—” Chuck pointed over to Gail and Kelly. Kelly was laughing pretty hard. Gail grinned and rolled her eyes.
Chuck stopped himself. The man in the pink polo sighed and gave him a look that seemed to say, “Look kid, you’ve obviously made a mistake. So, probably your best bet here is to just walk away. Make a clean break. Not a word, just slowly back away from the table….”
But then the man spoke: “Gather some evidence and get a clue; your little miss thing over there is playing you like a board game.”
Chuck looked back over at Gail and Kelly. There was a tall red-headed boy with them now. He had his arm around Kelly and seemed to find the situation just as funny as she.
Chuck turned back to Gail’s fake dad, and sighed. He was eating some kind of glazed chicken with greasy chow mein noodles. “You gonna finish that?”
“Will you leave if I give it to you?”
“Uh, yeah. That and the soda.”
Chuck carried his plate in one hand and his soda in the other as he walked back over to Gail and Kelly still standing in line. They were now third.
“Hey, you guys, I really don’t think that was your dad over there. They said they were in some kind of cult or something and so they can’t breed. It’s like forbidden or something. Who’s this?” He pointed to the tall red-head and sipped from his soda.
The boy slapped Chuck’s drink out of his hand and announced his name: “Jacob.”
“Well Jacob, did anyone ever tell you that hitting drinks out of people’s hands is not a good way to go around making friends? You know, and actually, it’s probably the stupidest way to make friends.”
“What the fuck are you wearing?”
“Dude, it’s a leather vest with a crying Indian on the back. It’s ceremonial garb; you wouldn’t understand. So Gail, you want some chicken chow mein? I only have the one fork, but it works pretty good.”
Dennis and Sean watched from the table as things began to escalate. When the tall red-headed boy knocked Chuck’s soda out of his hand, Dennis lurched forward out of his chair and started over. He didn’t have a plan or anything clever to say. It was important to have something clever to say. Stupid jagoffs like this tall red-headed kid hated that kind of word play at their expense. It exposed their hollow, empty husk of a soul. Dennis wove through the tables of older folks sitting and eating happily. He wanted to get the jump on carrot top, sneak around and catch him off guard with something scathing, just really painful. The atrium was wide enough for him to cross over and double back near the wall of eateries, cutting through the lines, until finally, he was right behind the red head. The boy was taller than Dennis had first thought from seeing him across the atrium. He was probably a Senior, at least a Junior. He wore a long-sleeve t-shirt with a Gaelic crest outlined on the back. It showed a lion mauling a unicorn, which didn’t quite seem like a fair fight. As Dennis walked up behind him, he was really hoping that something witty would reveal itself, but when it didn’t, something else in him clicked. It could have been the picture of the lion tearing into the unicorn or the dense smell of sautéed beef and pork in the air, but whatever it was, it inspired Dennis to leap on the back of the kid with red hair and lock an arm around his throat and another across the back of his head. The technique seemed to come to him naturally, and he kicked his legs wildly to force carrot top to the ground. After they fell, Dennis jumped to his feet and, jogging in-place, pumped his fists in the air, victoriously, at which point the red-haired kid charged Dennis, knocked him to the ground, and started bludgeoning his face and torso.
The unspoken agreement of order in the food court is a delicate treaty of communal living that once broken is very difficult to re-sanction. A ruckus unfolds and immediately disrupts the single-file doldrums. Conversations about herniated discs and ingrown toenails are all but forgotten when the main focus is a fourteen-year-old in mint green shorts, being attacked by a ginger. Strangers are compelled to speak to one another, to share critiques on the ginger’s form or trade possible suggestions for the one on the ground getting hell beaten out of him. Even after the crisis is well over, it still hangs there, trailing conversations, reappearing during sore topics and empty silences. What was once an isolated afternoon had become a universal experience, and therefore ruined forever.
“You’re sure you don’t want to try some of this chicken? It’s got like a spicy kick to it, some kind of Asian spice. Do you cook?”
For a second it looked like Gail was thinking the question over, a brief flash of cognitive thought, then she turned back to Jacob and Dennis on the ground.
Sean was the first to notice the security guards, three of them: two coming from the restrooms and one across the atrium from Wussup Records. He lurched out of his seat and followed the one through the tables. Most shoppers had stopped eating and were standing, trying to peer over the heads of others to get a better view. The SG took his time ambling through, announcing casually that everything was okay and that he would handle it, please just finish your meals.
In all the commotion Jacob landed maybe six solid blows before a heavy-headed Lutheran pulled him from his much smaller adversary, huddled in the fetal position on the floor. The SGs were on the scene soon after, making snap-decisions, placing everyone in one of two categories, which raised, really, only one question. It was for Gail:
“Are you with them?”
Sean gestured to Dennis and Chuck. “What makes you think we’re together?”
“Oh come on,” another SG said, “you three come in here all the time dressed like rag-a-muffins.”
“Man, you guys are racist.” Sean crossed his arms and leaned back against Edwardo’s sneeze guard.
One of the SGs eased toward Sean, and another toward Dennis.
“So what’s it going to be, miss?” the third SG asked, stepping closer.
Gail stood under the Order Here sign, clinging to the deep silence that followed. The blonde boy held up the plate of chicken chow mein; the offer was still open. Kelly was consoling Jacob, which she would no doubt be doing the rest of the day. The boy that Jacob beat up was sitting on the floor with his arms on his knees, doubled over. Their black friend waited patiently, leaning on the glass, eyeing the three security guards and her. The line behind her was growing restless, and the overall atmosphere of the food court was turning sour. Behind her, manning the register at Edwardo’s Spiceria was a heavy-set man in a white chef’s hat, a goatee, and stubble on his joules. He could have been Edwardo himself. She looked to the menu. It had only more choices. She turned to the blonde boy. He touched his glasses and smiled.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Chuck.” And with that, he lobbed the plate of chicken chow mein at the looming SG.
Chuck and Gail locked hands and dashed through the crowd, shouldering strangers and checking small children. Sean and Dennis could be heard but not seen as they made their respective getaways, and when the four of them were outside, they did not stop running.
John Thurgood received his BA in fiction writing from a state university in San Francisco. His stories and essays have appeared in The Logan Square Literary Review, The Music Underground, and City Works.