“Chief”

Obvious nickname for the boy with the Mohawk. When it grew back in after the miracle of graduation—his famous whoop across the stage—he was still then and always, Chief. He grabbed his diploma, and promptly disappeared into a chemical haze. His acne scars deepened into tribal markings. If we sneered a bit, he didn’t notice, pumping the gas into our new cars we’d helped build in the factory and would pay for forever. He bent down to push his nonstop stutter-chatter through the slight window crack. Kevin Coker. His eyes shrunk into glassy pink slits of stoned-out—not bliss, what was it? If he’d been smarter, he could have at least started dealing. It didn’t take smart to work in the factory, but you had to tell time and not get hurt.

How could he get fired from Green-Top Lawn Spray? All he had to do was run the mowers and spray the poison. All the people wanted was thick green grass in the high distant suburbs. Living in our neighborhood was poison enough, and weeds were welcome with the self-defeating love of our deluded nostalgia.

He drove the car that killed Dave R., crossing the center line on a dark two-lane in Rochester. Dave’s parents found Jesus and forgave Kevin, kept him out of jail, though he never drove again. As far as I know, but my knowledge only extends to the end of the block. It extends to knowing when to start and stop. When to idle and see what comes next. I revved up, and drove away.

The Mohawk gave him a place—a thin opening that allowed him to slip out of the world and above the flat streets of long, stringy hair. He carried a switchblade at all times but never used it except to flick open and shut, slicing wind. His older brother died in Vietnam. He’d been a bully while alive, practicing on Kevin. Maybe the stuttering came from bad ventriloquism.

He doesn’t recognize me today, passing by him on the way to my parents’ house thirty years later. Even when I beep my horn and stop to idle and wave. He’s cutting his parents’ lawn back and forth, back and forth. He’s had to live with killing a kid. His cheeks shrunk into bone, and he never married, never left home.
Why did he have to go and spray a cat with that poison, and laugh, thinking someone else might laugh too?

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