“We gotta go.”
Robert Harwell hadn’t called himself “Robert Harwell” once in his entire life. First he was Bobby, a diminutive that fit well with his boyhood spent rounding baseball diamonds and holding up quarters while shouting his order at the ice cream man and sneaking into the movie theater and drinking his Coca-Cola through Red Vines in the back row. When he reached maturity in the late 1970s (that is, biological maturity, not that trickier temperamental version toward which we all thrive and of which we eventually fall short), he insisted on being called Xavier, the middle name that his father, Walter, had given him, that nebbish, milquetoast of a bank teller with the slightest twist of Catholic zest among a constitution of otherwise pure Jack Daniels and Coke, just enough of a Catholic to thumb through a book of saints and pick one that seemed to encompass that which he wanted his son to be but had never been himself: bold, brave, devil-may-care. He read something about Borneo, didn’t even know what Borneo was, but thought to himself, “This is my son—a warrior, a conqueror.” A warrior and conqueror St. Francis Xavier was not, necessarily; the elder Harwell read through the book absent-mindedly from the comfort of a knock-off Eames chair, tilting another whiskey and Coke against his lips, brushing from his hound’s-tooth jacket the slightest dribble that had made its way down his chin. As for Robert Harwell, he knew from battle.
“Xavier” didn’t last long—for a brief period at the cusp of the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Harwell went by simply “X,” having become recently infatuated with the ascendant Los Angeles-based punk band of the same name and having shaved his head into its first blue-tinged Mohawk. But soon, he gave up “X” as well, and from the age of 18, the summer of 1980, he was simply Harwell. One of those people with whom you could only ever be on a last name basis. Robert? No one had ever heard of him, try next door. Harwell’s here, maybe he can help. Robert? There’s no one here by that name. Why don’t you fuck right off?
Harwell was born after his first fist fight. There’d been a show at a small, subterranean bar in Detroit, Black Flag playing in a crevice beside the bar with their third lead singer, Dez Cadena. He went with two of his friends from high school, a girl named Kira and a boy named Keith, after hearing about the show during a station identification break for Impact 89FM, the MSU radio station, right between PSAs for contraceptives and the University’s poorly attended Latin Club. It was Harwell’s first live punk show, and most of what he knew he’d read from ‘zines, or heard second-hand from others who’d heard it second-hand from others who’d been to shows in New York, Chicago, or in some cases even L.A. or San Francisco. Having heard stories of violence and debauchery—fist fights in the crowd, bottles and rotten food and even human feces thrown toward the stage, and a free exchange of spit among members of the band and audience alike—he came perhaps too prepared, in so many ways still the polite son of a banker who always did his homework. He filled a large Hefty bag with bottles he’d collected from the street: rotten tomatoes that his mother had discarded in the garbage, dog droppings from various yards in his suburban East Lansing neighborhood.
Kira was skeptical, but Keith joined in, hurling detritus at the band the moment they took the stage. The bar didn’t have a bouncer, but the bartender, a man whose bulk was equally distributed between muscle and fat, confronted Robert Xavier Harwell.
“Get your skinny ass out of my bar,” he said, ready to give him the old “heave ho.”
Xavier muttered a few choice lines about fascism, but Keith wasn’t the violent type, and Kira was already reaching behind the bar to pinch a bottle of Wild Turkey in the commotion, so Robert Xavier Harwell found himself on his ass, 86’ed in an unlit alley in south Detroit. This was an unacceptable proposition for the budding punk rocker, who’d heard plenty of stories of shows erupting into bedlam, or the police breaking up shows with their billy clubs and riot gear, but never one of the faithful being chucked into the street by a fucking bartender for throwing a rotten head of cabbage, or a summer squash or two. So he went back in, fully prepared to fight two armed guards for the right to readmittance. The bartender didn’t notice him—he’d bit off more than he could chew, booking Black Flag, and was busy trying to protect his juke box, which a huddle of punks were in the process of rocking back and forth, not to the rhythm of the music, as the band was playing far too fast and they weren’t strong enough to keep up, most of them pale suburbanites whose skin had been drained of color and whose muscles had nearly atrophied from hours spent indoors banging their heads to records with the curtains shut, cheeks sunken and eyes bulging, clammy with sweat like some new species of cave-dwelling amphibian.
Robert Xavier worked his way to the front of the crowd, taking Kira’s elbow and pulling her with him through the pulsating throng. He wanted to make his mark, on the world eventually, but for the moment on Detroit, Michigan, on this nameless club, on Dez Cadena’s face. So he fought his way back to the front of the crowd. It wasn’t hard. He had the perseverance and the recently developed musculature of adolescence, what’s more, he had the unchecked aggression of a suburban adolescence largely free of conflict, the kind of adolescence in which a sense of outrage must be imagined, created, nurtured quietly in rooms in much the same manner that ant farms, injured birds, and masturbatory fantasies had been nurtured. The bartender had confiscated his bag, and so Robert Harwell only had his surroundings from which to glean weapons. He chose wisely—that is, if one is to judge the wisdom of a weapon by its propensity to do damage. From Dez Cadena’s point of view, he chose poorly—a heavy-bottomed beer mug with a thick handle that had been discarded by one of the band members and left balancing atop the vocal monitor. It had a chip in the rim, and so when Xavier leapt onto the stage, kicked over a Marshall amp and hit Cadena in his left temple, the glass made a two inch cut across Cadena’s forehead. Robert Xavier Harwell made a cut across that forehead, and he made blood fall on the PBR-slicked floor of that stage, and in addition to the cut, he knocked Dez Cadena unconscious, ended the show. He had done it. And while it was certainly not the kind of creative act he had imagined, at least he knew that he could destroy, could upend, could act on the world and see it buckle just slightly beneath his fist, fall to the stage in a puddle of blood and spit.
Robert Harwell found himself cuffed on the curb just inches from where he had been thrown out by the bartender earlier that night. He was looking at a dark mark on the concrete that he was pretty sure was his own dried spit. He was concentrating on his breathing. Up the road a piece, the bartender was gesticulating wildly and giving a statement to a police officer next to a “paddy wagon.” Robert Harwell wasn’t the only Detroit punk rocker going to jail that night, although he was their standard bearer. Kira stood against the doorway, taking long swigs from the Turkey.
“Stay strong, Harwell,” she said, just saying it, not thinking that it wasn’t a good idea to shout out his name in the presence of Detroit’s finest. Why she said his last name was unclear to her, as she typically called him, “X,” but in the moment it came to her. He was their hero. They should know where he came from. Who he was.
The cop, whipping out his night stick and twirling it on his finger (he’d learned it watching TV, practiced the move over and over, in the process breaking a lamp prized by his wife), clucked his tongue and walked slowly in that direction, the walk of someone who knows he is in control, the walk of someone ready to exercise that control by means of violence, and the walk of someone who wants everyone to know it.
“So,” the cop said—he didn’t have an Irish brogue, but he may as well have, for all the subtlety he brought to the performance. “It has a name.”
“It” looked up.
“You Harwell?” And “it” took a deep breath, and “it” leaned forward, and “it” spat in the cop’s eye, and “it” got beaten something awful there on that street. But from that point on, that question had itself an answer. Harwell had a name.
But that was then, as Harwell would often say, “That was then,” and there was no going back, not for him, not for the hardcore punk scene (rumors of its ever existing, as far as Harwell was concerned, were exaggerated). His childhood was a shut book, no, a burned book, its ashes part of the wind, inhaled by a homeless junkie and spat onto the street in a glob of grayish phlegm, which is what Harwell was doing now and what he was, in August of 1985, a bead of sweat falling off of his nose and landing on the burnished steel of a small paring knife that he held up to the neck of a stocky man in a business suit. Harwell’s boot was on the man’s briefcase, his knifeless hand gripped around the lapel of his suit and holding him against the brick wall of an alley in Detroit, not far from the underground bar (now vacant) where he had been born—although this was the last thing on Harwell’s mind as he tried to focus on the trembling man in the moustache that he had in his grasp (technically, it was the third-to-last thing—the last was tort reform, the second-to-last was Christmas morning 1971, the smile on his mother’s face as she wheeled a brand new fire-engine red Radio Flyer wagon from the hall closet). He was shaking, and he didn’t want to actually hurt the man, so it took all the concentration he had to keep the knife (which wasn’t particularly sharp) balanced along the soft flesh of the neck at just such an angle (70 degrees) and at just such a pressure (85 psi) that it would hurt, but not break skin.
“Is this such an unexpected experience, Walter? Is this so alien to your day-to-day life, your perception of the world, that you don’t know how it goes? I’m robbing you. Have you never seen a movie? Do you not watch TV? Did you pay for that shitty suit with money from a wallet at some point? Give that wallet to me, then run away. Call the police, call your therapist, call Coleman Fucking Young, for all I care. Go down the street to the Ritz Camera, buy a nice looking automatic, take my picture and post it on every lamppost in Detroit, but first gently toss your wallet next to your briefcase and get out of here.”
The man was shaking. “Who’s Walter?”
Harwell flinched. It caught him off guard. Who was Walter? Harwell had never met the man with the shitty suit and the nice briefcase, had not seen his wallet yet, and so had no way of knowing his name. But now this name, Walter, was in his mind, it was with him the way that a long-forgotten smell from childhood will come upon you suddenly and hold you in its grip—except that it didn’t come with a flood of associations and a feeling of lightness in his abdomen. No, it came bearing dread. It came bearing doom. “Walter” was already gone, running down the alley and out into the street, out of our story forever, but Walter was with Harwell, who had dropped the knife, who had fallen against the wall of the alley. (How much time must we spend leaning against the walls of, writhing on the floors of, running down the lengths of, sweating in the bellies of alleys in this story? What has become of us?) He was having trouble breathing.
“What are you doing, man?” This was Rollo, Harwell’s partner, literally, in crime. Harwell hadn’t seen his approach. He had been busy wondering where he was, counting the larger white stones interspersed among the smaller black ones in the asphalt inches from his face.
“Seven, eight, nine,” Harwell said, flatly.
“You get his wallet?”
Harwell shook his head.
“Fuck, Harwell, what am I pissing my shorts looking out for if you ain’t coming through?” Rollo picked up the briefcase, began throwing the papers out onto the street. “Well, we might pawn the briefcase, at least.”
Harwell was coughing, his head against the brick, his scalp scraping against it.
“You okay, man?”
Harwell didn’t know if he was okay, not anymore. That was the point.
Now, Walter, of course, was Harwell’s father. And what Harwell was experiencing was a sudden return of the ghosts of his past. Did Harwell know this? He certainly did, but with what level of clarity it’s hard to discern. He certainly knew this was his father’s name. But did he know that this was the reason the name’s utterance had caused such a panic in him? He was of two minds. Denial and recognition existed at once, like two songs whose tunes he could not keep separate, the bridge leading inevitably to the wrong chorus, the chorus kicking into a verse that had nothing to do with itself.
Luckily for Harwell, he had multiple options for putting the idea out of his head, having sold the briefcase (alligator skin, Hecho en Espana) at a pawn shop in Mexicantown, scored a bundle with Rollo, shot up about $60 of it in their tiny squat on Broadville, lolled his head around in circles for about twenty-seven minutes or so while languidly debating with Rollo the finer points of Marx’s theory of capital, and having walked down the street to the Quality Dairy on the corner to mark his come-down in the usual fashion: a 32-ounce Arctic Freeze (Coke flavored), five packets of Sixlets candy, and as much as he and Rollo could afford to play of the arcade game “Gauntlet,” a four-player cabinet that had been recently acquired by the convenience store (replacing an aging “Mrs. Pac-Man” machine that had been in place since the latter days of the Carter administration), and was most notable for the fact that it contained a primitive vocoder, allowing a computerized voice to instruct and taunt the players as they fought through hordes of ogres, ghosts, and even the angel of death him—or her—self.
Harwell—he was playing an elf, and was running low on manna—hit Rollo in the arm. “Rollo, I need quarters. This voice is fucking with me, man.” The arcade was intoning, “ELF NEEDS FOOD. NOW,” as Harwell’s green avatar flashed red on the screen. He did need food. Now. He could feel it in his kidneys.
“I ain’t got any left, man, come on, you’re killing me,” Rollo said, checking Harwell aside with his shoulder.
“Hey,” and Harwell was running over to the counter now, “gimme some quarters, Chavo, hurry it up.”
The night cashier, a tall skinny man with a thick black moustache that reached all the way down to his chin, even threatening to encroach on the territory beneath his chin and down his jaw, sighed, his voice weak from weariness. “You know I can’t make you change just for the arcade, Harwell. Try the Laundromat.”
“Fuck the laundromat, Chavo, I’m dying here!”
“Don’t cuss me, man, I’ll call Josh.” Josh, the night manager, was in the back, doing inventory on the beer and soft drinks.
“Ah, shit. I’ll buy something then,” he tossed a pack of Mamba chews on the counter. Chavo made the transaction, grumbling something in Spanish that Harwell didn’t understand, using slightly too much force to close the register.
But Harwell couldn’t focus. Usually the drugs calmed him to the extent that he was a veritable savant at the arcade machine, anticipating the movements of the little pixilated gnomes and dragons and disposing of them with precision, the red knob of the joystick resting in the center of his palm as if it belonged there, as if some engineer had taken Harwell’s measurements and constructed the machine according to those specifications, or as if Harwell had been born to play “Gauntlet,” as if this were his predestined purpose, to chew candy, suck down frozen sugar water, and hit the plastic buttons to kill the demon armies of some tiny, isometric world. But not tonight. He was thinking—and this was the problem. Why had he let that fat stock broker (or whatever he was) out of his grip? He couldn’t find an answer, and the machine was already taunting him again. Never have I seen such bravery, said the blips and bloops. He was convinced it was being sarcastic.
“Fuck! Chavo, I need more quarters!”
Chavo, unmoving, had his arms crossed. “You gotta calm down, man, or you gotta go.”
Rollo, not looking away from the machine, lazily called after Harwell, who had returned to the counter and had already knocked over the small wire rack arrayed with various Hostess snack products. “Would you knock it off, Harwell, I’m fighting a dragon here, mother fucker, and you’re harshing my mellow.”
Harwell was twitching, his hand was in his vest pocket. (Harwell had this old knitted vest that he wore over his t-shirt—he kept his knife in the place where one was meant to keep their watch fob). “Just give me some fucking quarters, Chavo, and nobody gets hurt.”
“That’s it,” Chavo was jumping across the counter, but Harwell already had him by the red apron that was the only uniform QD workers wore. He yanked him backwards, pushed him down onto the counter so that his back was flat against it but his legs were left dangling in the air. Chavo writhed wildly, but Harwell was stronger than he looked in his soiled United Way t-shirt, frayed vest, and cut-off jeans, arms all lean cuts of meat with veins bursting out at the surface, taught, regular as circuitry; he had Chavo at the neck, and the cashier couldn’t breathe enough to scream the things he wanted to scream at the lanky man who by now had his knife out, teasing it across the hollow of his collar bone.
Rollo, who’d hit the coin return on the Gauntlet machine in hopes of being compensated for the interruption, kicked the machine in frustration—he wanted, no doubt, to kick Harwell, but he was nothing if not loyal, so even though he yelled a continuous stream of “You mother fucker. You son of a bitch. God dammit. Cock sucker,” and etc., he was a consummate professional, had crossed the room, grabbed the push broom leaning behind the register and unscrewed the handle, used that to both bash the security camera back into its component parts and bar the double glass doors at the entrance, and had emptied the register of its cash, even shoving the change into the pockets of his sleeveless hooded sweatshirt, all before Harwell could even say to Chavo, “Just remember that if you give them our names, we will come after you, Chavo, and cut your little ninos into chimichangas.”
“Harwell, you racist piece of shit,” Rollo yelled, frantically looking under the counter for any evidence of a pistol or shotgun. “Don’t talk to him like that. Chavo, nobody’s cutting your kids into chimichangas, man. How do you even cut someone into chimichangas? That’s a fried burrito, you ignorant fuck.”
Harwell hit Chavo in the ribs with his elbow; the man grunted through clenched teeth. “Rollo, you need to stop with the fucking annotations and go stick the pin in that walk-in before we get surprised over here.”
“Chavo, you hold tight, brother, I ain’t let him hurt you.”
With Rollo gone, Harwell stuck the knife back at Chavo’s neck. “Look, Chavo, you’re not a bad guy. Rollo, he’s not a bad guy. But do you know what? I am a bad fucking guy. I know you seen me in here, and you think I’m some harmless punk, I’m just here to fuck around on the arcade, some white boy from the suburbs who took a few bad turns. You think you’re too tough to worry about me. Well, look!” And here Harwell delivered a swift and highly unnecessary knee to Chavo’s groin. “You are a fucking cashier, my friend. And I am a goddamned desperado, do you hear me? Now what do you have to say to that?”
Chavo didn’t flinch. He looked Harwell right in the eyes. “That’s a fucking Eagles song, you faggot.” And perhaps if Chavo really thought Harwell had it in him, perhaps if he’d known the anger that lurked behind those bloodshot eyes, perhaps if he’d thought that Harwell would jerk back the arm that held the blunted, rusty knife and swing it downward toward his throat, he would have shut up. And Harwell may have done just that, had Rollo not come running back from the stock room, holding the night manager by the collar, jabbing his weapon of choice—a cut off section of lead pipe with a sharpened tip—into the man’s side.
“Rollo! What are you doing with him up here?”
“Shit is fucked, Harwell. It’s game over. We gotta go.”
“Okay, okay, okay, come on.” He pulled Chavo up, turned him around, tied his hands together with his apron strings, and shoved him back over the counter. He pulled the broom handle out of the door, stuck out his head.
“Coast clear, man?” Rollo was hog tying the manager with a rolled up garbage bag.
“Yeah, you go first and watch the alley.”
Rollo was out the door. Harwell took the broom handle and used it to hammer at the cathode tube of the “Gauntlet” machine. It sputtered, smoked and sparked, the mechanized voice screaming out in static before its pitch spiraled downward into a desperate, toneless plea.
About an hour later, Harwell and Rollo were squatting (literal) in their squat (figurative) on Broadville, about a mile from the convenience store that had just fallen victim to their considerable wrath. They hadn’t said a word longer than four letters to each other since sprinting away from the Quality Dairy, and for the last thirty minutes they’d been listening for any movement outside, not sure if they’d been followed, or if Chavo and the night manager had enough information about them gathered from their several months of patronage to know where they hung their heads.
Rollo, evidently too tired to keep up the stance anymore, began rooting around in a pile of dirty rags for the old film canister where they kept their stash. Having found it, he leaned back against an old mattress that was propped against the concrete wall. (Their squat was a basement underneath an antiques dealer that had been shuttered a few months previously, so in addition to their junky’s assortment of old rags, soiled clothing, cans of Chicken of the Sea and Chef Boyardee, used porno magazines, rubber tubing, burnt spoons, bent spoons, spoons rendered to nothing more than bits of shrapnel and solder, lighters, syringes, wadded up McDonald’s wrappers, and desiccated Styrofoam cups, they also had quite a nice collection of vases and ashtrays, some of which they would regularly pawn off in order to make extra money in a pinch).
“You fucked this all up, Harwell. You fucked this up something awful, man,” Rollo was looking in vain for a vein as he said this, slapping himself on the inside of the elbow as if he were slapping Harwell across the face.
“I know.” He was still on his toes, and his calves burned. “I’m not sure what happened.”
“Oh, you’re not sure what happened? Is that right? You’re not sure? Well, it looked to me like you stuck a knife in poor Chavo’s face and stole all his shit, and that you trashed the whole place and put yourself on the shit list of one of the only guys in this neighborhood can put a name to our faces. Looks like you also broke the fucking arcade machine. I was about to kill that dragon, you dumb sonofabitch.”
“Yeah,” Harwell said, but nothing more. He was pulling at his greasy shrub of hair with one hand and turning his knife slowly in a crack in the concrete, working his way down toward the dirt with infinitesimal progress, like a drill working in slow motion.
“What did Chavo ever do to you? We had a system here. We had an agreement, you and me. A code.” Rollo stopped speaking for a moment, using his teeth to hold in place the free end of a rubber hose tied around his bicep.
Rollo and Harwell had met before they’d ever shared a squat together, before they’d ever shot up together, before they’d ever scored together, before they’d ever robbed an overweight commodities broker at knifepoint along the waterfront together; they’d met as “civilians,” when Harwell still sang for a punk band in Lansing and Rollo worked as an organizer for the UAW Local 581 at Fisher Body. The two men were casual acquaintances, really, seeing each other at the same political rallies, the same meetings, the same parties, during the short period when Harwell considered himself politically active, a period that peaked with the election of 1984 and then tapered off precipitously after Reagan’s second inauguration. That summer, Rollo and Harwell had run into each other at a shelter on the east side of Detroit, Rollo having been laid off and Harwell having simply packed up and left, leaving his guitars and his gear behind, taking a few t-shirts and moving on. They’d both been recreational drug users—it was the ‘80s, almost everyone was—but by the time they hooked up in Detroit, their drug use had eclipsed the extracurricular and become their primary vocation.
Huddling together in the kitchen of an apartment they’d both managed to finagle a night of sleep in from the owner, Harwell and Rollo shared a bag, and Harwell, skinny with hunger and buzzed on a two liter of Coke, began to talk about their futures, and the ways in which he thought they could be shaped to compensate for their pasts.
“I’m sick of this shit man, I’m sick of not being able to find nothing, nothing, I mean nothing for myself. All that’s going on in this goddamn world, people starving in the streets of the goddamn United States of America; you think this is what Crispus Attucks martyred himself for, Rollo?” Rollo nodded uncomfortably, impressed by the appeal to history, but less impressed by the way Harwell seemed to be pandering to the racial angle. Who brings up Crispus Attucks, he wondered to himself. “It’s bullshit, using the drug war to put his enemies in prison; killing off the queers with that virus in New York; shipping guns south so’s he can take the ‘Latin’ out of ‘Latin America.’ Manifest destiny, that rickety old snake oil seller, raising monkeys in cribs, selling as many G.I. Joes as he can.”
Rollo didn’t quite follow the monkey bit, or the G.I. Joe thread, but he was with Harwell on this; Reagan’s reelection had crushed him, the whole map swathed in red on the ABC Nightly News, Minnesota glowing blue like a rotting wound waiting to be sutured, boos and aggressive chanting rising up in the union hall where he watched the results with a group of the faithful drinking Molson by the case, and soon Jim Beam by the case as the returns rolled in, states going for Reagan one after the other like coeds dropping their panties for a shot of Jagermeister, as a particularly obnoxious line foreman, Big Sam, put it. Rollo didn’t care much for that joke. He spent half the night saying he was packing up the next morning for Minnesota, the only state to go for Mondale, but when Big Sam—staggering drunkenly along the line between friendly and aggressive—patted him on the back and told him Minnesota was 91.2% white, Rollo thought better of it.
On the floor of that kitchen, in 1985, Rollo was won over by Harwell’s anger, but saw no way to channel it into action. “He fucking won, Harwell. He ran the fucking board. We’re finished. Look at us,” he said, and at that moment, they happened to be cutting mold off of a large day-glo brick of government cheese and drinking out of the same 40 oz.
“Fuck that. Politics, activism. You’re right. It’s pointless. We failed.”
“So what do we do?”
“We do the same thing men of principle have always done when society gives them no other choice.” And Harwell withdrew the knife from the block of cheese and stuck it with a flourish down into the linoleum of the kitchen floor they were sitting cross-legged on. It stood there, handle extended upward, and Harwell took the hand that had just plunged the knife homeward, and reached for Rollo’s hand, which had to place the Old English beside the knife in order to return the gesture, to grasp Harwell’s with all of its considerable might. “We fight.”
And they did. But, principled as they were, they chose their targets carefully. Men in suits who wore Rolexes, were fluent in Mercedese, and ate lunch at any of the few swank establishments that Detroit had left. It was their last gasp, a blow against the system that had used them so ill. Harwell considered himself a Robin Hood, albeit one who took out the middle man. He robbed from the rich, and kept for himself.
But he’d crossed the line tonight, going after Chavo, going after the register (Quality Dairy was a locally owned business, and the owner had put in a hefty sum for Mondale, and Carter before him), and he knew it. Rollo had fallen back, eyes giving way to the vacancy of a fresh high. Harwell stayed on his knees, listening for the slightest sound, waiting for the sun to rise, considering it his penance to wait as long as he could to take the needle for himself. He didn’t last long.
“She looks just right to me,” Rollo said. “Look at her shoes. Patent leather.”
It was just after sundown, and the two desperadoes were staking out a well-appointed (but not too well-appointed) office building a few blocks from the Wayne State campus. They’d stayed away from their usual circuit for the last two days in the wake of the convenience store debacle.
“Yeah, okay, okay. I’ll get after her when she heads toward the parking garage. You post up at the entrance to the alley.”
Harwell followed along behind her, keeping his head low, whistling “Jump” by Van Halen, a song he didn’t like, but that he hadn’t been able to get out of his head since hearing it on the PA at the Quality Dairy a week earlier. Once they were in the alley, she turned, and instead of following the plan, which was to keep walking and act like he wasn’t paying any attention to her, he stopped, and actually had to put his hand against his chest in hopes that it would slow his heart in its beating, because it was not some anonymous Yuppie on her way to aerobics class at the Broadway YMCA, it was someone he knew, from so long ago that initially he didn’t even recognize her face, he only recognized the feeling of her, and he immediately felt excited and terrified and safe all at the same time. Smells were returning to him that he had long since forgotten about: Wild Turkey mixed with Cherry Coke, L.A. Looks hair gel, mentholated Camels. She recognized him first: “Robert Harwell? Is that you?
And it was the voice that brought it all together, raspy and low-pitched, but warm with enthusiasm. He smiled; he couldn’t help it. “Kira.”
She looked, of course, completely different than when he’d last seen her: the gray business suit, the brown hair teased up into the popular style of the time, a style Harwell had always compared to a lion’s mane (no streaks of pink, no hint of gel or glue but plenty of hairspray); she wore a modest pink shade of lipstick (he’d never seen her with lipstick, other than a shade called Shoe-Polish Black she used to put on before they went to see shows), and she must have removed all of her piercings, because the only ones left that Harwell could see were the standard issue earlobes, currently hanging with some dangly sapphire numbers (he thought, difficult to break the habit, that he could probably get $50 bucks for pawning them). Kira was certainly not, in her current incarnation, someone who Harwell would find himself interested in, but she had the same eyes, and she was looking at him now, smiling at him now the way she once had, and he couldn’t resist falling back into a feeling that, after five years, he would have thought had been completely erased by the sands of time, or the marching of time, or whatever the fuck you call it; he couldn’t think of a metaphor, but he was trying to, because he needed something like poetry to explain the way it made him feel that this woman, whom he’d once and very briefly loved, should return to him after all these years.
Rollo was standing at the end of the alley, tangled in the lower portion of a sizable topiary bush, cussing under his breath. He was loyal to Harwell, felt, in fact, responsible for him, as he considered the man little more than a kid—he was 23 to Rollo’s 28—and for all the bravado and the flash with which the younger man carried himself, Rollo knew that he was not exactly cut out for the “mean streets” of Detroit. But this was, to his mind, the third in a row of three increasingly serious fuck ups. When he saw that he was talking to this woman, smiling, laughing, having a regular goddamned gab session, he fought his way out of the bush and just left, figuring he’d find somewhere to sit for an hour or two before returning to their squat later that night. It was okay with Harwell, who was so wrapped up in this new reverie that he’d forgotten about Rollo, forgotten about their dwindling stash, forgotten about this urgent, desperate desire to stab someone in an Italian suit in the stomach, watch him bleed out onto brick and stone.
“Yeah,” he said, answering Kira’s question. “Basically the same old shit for me.”
“So, you’re really keeping the dream alive, huh? That’s great, Harwell.” It was a delicate situation, and Harwell had been lucky. If anyone else from Kira’s past had shown up in an alley whistling “Jump,” dressed in Harwell’s state—the same vest as before, the same grimy jeans he’d been wearing for weeks, an old Bad Brains t-shirt that contained proportionately more sweat and blood and alley grease than it did cotton, boots that looked like they’d (indeed, had) been fished out of the Detroit River, hair so tangled, discolored and misshapen that it could only be attributed to “style” by the most radical of observers—she’d have screamed and run, or maybe, if she were in a compassionate spirit, given him a dollar and been on her way. But when last she’d seen Harwell, he’d been a punk, and his intentional sense of style at the time was not dissimilar to how weeks of living on the street had left him now—certainly he’d been cleaner, his boots with a K-Mart shine that was unmistakable beneath the rivets and studs, but Kira could make those allowances easily in her head, far more easily than she could jump to the conclusion that Harwell, her Harwell, had fallen on such hard times. And she did consider him hers—or at least she had once, when she’d drained her savings account to bail him out of jail after that formative Black Flag show, taken him back to her house and hid him in her room, where she’d fed him Campbell’s soup smuggled from the pantry. Before he eventually had to leave, she’d invited him into her bed, where they engaged in sweaty, fast-paced, violent sex before he went back home, the last time they’d ever be together, as circumstances, fate, an enraged father, and a full academic scholarship to the University of Michigan intervened later that summer.
“Kira, it’s great to run into you. I don’t suppose you’d like to get a drink, would you?”
In spite of herself, she was blushing. In spite of himself, he couldn’t stop grinning like a fucking kid. She smiled, touched his arm, “I’d love that.”
He was tingling, and it wasn’t (okay, maybe a little) because he needed a hit.
Kira took him to a place nearby called LuX, a piano bar where the drinks were $7 and entrees priced so exorbitantly that Harwell could have gotten high for less. He took one look at the menu, and at the Armani sheathed clientele chattering about bearer bonds while the pianist somehow managed to ruin a recent Stevie Wonder song that was already a travesty to Harwell’s mind, and he said to Kira, “Look, this is not exactly my kind of place.”
She smiled. “Me neither. But don’t worry, it’s on me—I remember the punk lifestyle.”
He laughed weakly. “I don’t know about that.”
He had been responding to her second remark, but she thought he’d been responding to the first, so she said, “Look, Harwell, it’s 1985 not 1928, I’ve got the tab. End of discussion.”
Principled as he was, Harwell was homeless, so he couldn’t turn down a free meal and a free buzz—although he did spend the first few minutes before the waiter showed up pondering what type of destruction he’d have to rain down on this place later to repay the karmic debt of eating here. A brick through a window? Urinating in someone’s champagne glass? How much silver could he fit in the pockets of his jeans before anyone noticed?
The talk was small, and although Harwell had immediately felt the old connection with Kira, actually talking to her was weakening it considerably. She was a REALTOR® (and went on a bizarre tangent about unlicensed agents who tried to use that title, infringing upon the “legally binding trademark”), she had two dogs, she’d just broken up with a boyfriend of two years, Clarence, over what seemed to Harwell to be a series of arbitrary disagreements. By the time the salads had arrived—adorned with sundried tomatoes and what the menu had described as “tree nuts”—Harwell had finished his second martini, and was pondering his escape. Then, after saying how badly she needed to be eating salads after a lengthy bout with depression-fueled overeating in the first part of that year, she mentioned, “That son of a bitch, Reagan,” and Harwell perked up.
“I don’t know if this country can survive another four years of him, I honestly don’t.” She stuffed a wad of arugula into her mouth and chewed it aggressively.
“Yeah, when he swept in November I was…” Harwell searched for a word, and it surprised even him when he discarded “pissed,” “angry,” “enraged,” “infuriated” and their brethren for “heartbroken.”
“It seems like a decision so callously motivated by self-interest,” she said. “I just don’t understand how someone, how the working people of Michigan, of all people, could do that to themselves.”
“A misunderstanding of self interest, really,” Harwell said. “The auto plants will all be empty by the end of the decade, you watch.”
“And we’re just going to watch the whole country slide backward while a few of his buddies get rich.” Kira waved to the server, pointed down at their glasses. “Look, I’m in a terrible mood, but we need to celebrate. You don’t have to be up early tomorrow, do you?”
Harwell laughed. “Not exactly, no.”
She smiled. “Good. Let’s get drunk.”
When Harwell got back to the squat, Rollo was leaning against the mattress in his usual spot, flipping through an issue of Penthouse. There were a few minutes of tense politeness (“Whatcha reading?”—”Penthouse.”—”Madonna issue?”—”Shit’s fucked up, they bought these from some ex-boyfriend. She ain’t even blonde, yet”). But Rollo was the one who couldn’t take it anymore, so he came out and said, “You get laid at least, you crazy mother fucker?”
Harwell only laughed. “Just drinks, man. You’ll never believe me, but she was an old friend from high school.”
Rollo sucked his teeth, pulled out the centerfold to avoid looking him in the eyes. “What’s gonna happen here, man? You gonna treat her to a night out at the corner of Belgrave and Humboldt, get her a stamp and shake somebody down on your way out of a matinee?”
“Fuck you, Rollo.”
“Nah, nah, fuck you, Harwell. Slumming it here with the junkies while you take the GOP’s best and brightest out for Cobb Salad.”
“Kira’s a Democrat, you mother fucker.”
Rollo laughed, tossed the magazine onto the floor. “Yeah, I bet she is.”
“She is. And I’m a fucking junkie, too, Rollo. I’m a junkie.”
“Shit. Harwell, if you was a junkie, you wouldn’t sound so proud of it all the time.”
When Harwell woke up at around 5:00 p.m. the next day, Rollo was already gone, and so was the rest of their stash. He didn’t have enough money to reup, and he didn’t have time, because before she’d dropped him off last night (he’d picked a reasonable looking condo building a few blocks away and told her it was his), they’d made arrangements to get together for dinner again the next night. Kira had said she was anxious to “show him something,” and Harwell had taken it the only way he could take it. It had been a long time since he’d had sex of any kind, and he was willing to postpone a high for just a bit longer if it meant something might happen with Kira. Besides, for all he knew Rollo had made a trip to the pawn shop and would be back in the squat with a bag by the time he returned that night.
He met Kira outside of her office—he’d stopped off at a Wendy’s bathroom and done his best to clean himself up, even wetting his hair and trying to get it to slick back, but the results didn’t have the strong impression he’d expected. She smiled, gave him a quick hug, and led him toward her car, a BMW parked in a deck around the corner.
He didn’t know where she was taking him, but by the time they got there it was already growing dark. They’d driven northwest out of the city, making awkward attempts at small talk while she made the occasional comment about how surprised he was going to be. He had already given up on the sex possibility (or at least, the possibility that she was outwardly promising sex—he still felt confident that he could capitalize on whatever wild surprise she had planned). He didn’t know what to expect, but none of the options he entertained for himself (strip club, punk rock show, Wrestlemania) prepared him for what he saw when she finally parked the car along a shady suburban street just as the sun set behind the gables of the tall, two-story colonials in a neighborhood that looked eerily familiar to him. She opened the door, and because all houses in the suburbs look the same, and because it had been years since he’d been there, the well-manicured lawn and the tall oak trees out front didn’t tip him off, nor did the large gothic spire of the home’s central gable or the large bay window like the one where he used to play with his Legos on spring mornings. It wasn’t until they went inside, until he saw the dark oak wainscoting in the mudroom, smelled the familiar scent of cherry wood and carpet perfumed with years of cigar smoke, saw the banister leading upstairs with the one broken baluster halfway up, it wasn’t until then that he realized he was in his childhood home, empty, abandoned, for sale.
For reasons he couldn’t understand, Kira was smiling. “What do you think? Isn’t this amazing?”
Harwell didn’t say anything, he was looking in a mirror that was mounted near the door above a letter box that his father had installed many years ago, and even though it was his reflection in that mirror, and a mirror he had looked into thousands of times before, he couldn’t square the two ideas in his head, this house and this face, both years older, one irrevocably altered, one exactly, uncannily, supernaturally unchanged.
He was still standing in place, his mouth still open, and Kira was still talking and he just wanted her to stop, wanted it all to stop, wanted to burn the place to the ground, more than that to stop his brain, to stop thinking of his father and his mother and himself, the little boy playing hopscotch in the driveway and learning to spell at the kitchen table; he wanted to burn himself down. He wanted something, anything, to end, to be destroyed.
“I didn’t even know Walter and Jeanine sold the place,” Kira went on, “but look, the new owners, well, the old owners again, at this point, are desperate. He just got laid off at GM. Harwell, if you’re in the position to do it, you should consider putting money down on this thing. It’s a shitty economy, but that means it’s a buyer’s market. You could really clean up sometime down the line.”
It’s difficult to explain what happened next. Well, in one sense, it’s painfully simple: Harwell took his knife out of his pocket, held it up to Kira’s neck, and said, “Empty your purse.” What I mean to say is, it’s difficult for me to understand why. Certainly, the shock of seeing his new home again, the pain of realizing that his parents had never attempted to contact him when they left, however many years ago, the feeling of betrayal that Kira would bring him here as if it were a lark, as if she wasn’t privy to even a small part of the considerable well of confusion and discomfort that surrounded this place for him; all of that combined with the anger he felt, the anger that consumed him every second of his life, at Ronald Reagan, at the 54 million people who voted for him, at the United States government, at the piss poor managers of the city of Detroit’s infrastructure programs, at the DEA crackdown on the drug trade, at Coleman Young, at Henry Rollins and the rest of the dying stars of the moribund hardcore punk scene, at Duran Duran, at Boy George, at Eddie and Whoever the Fuck Else Van Halen and their synthesized pap garbage, at Madonna, especially Madonna, for turning the world into a leg-warmed, warmed over, material world, at every grinning, bloated liar in the “We Are the World” video, at Roger Smith, at Bill Bennett, at Jane Fonda for going from consorting with revolutionaries to counting knee bends in an obscene fit of callisthenic sell-out dementia, at Sylvester Stallone for insisting we might still win Vietnam if we only had the right headband, and yes, in that eternal, immature, but very real way, at his daddy for leaving him, and at every person he saw walking down the street, frankly, in the end, when all is said and done, who wasn’t either weeping into their hands or screaming and tearing out their hair, at anyone who could settle down for a cup of coffee on a Sunday goddamned morning and relax in the midst of this, all this, this world turned to fluorescent neon shit.
Kira, for her part, did not flinch. Her eyes, moistened a little, narrowed onto him, and she shook her head, slowly. “Me, Harwell?”
Harwell’s voice wavered. She wasn’t supposed to talk. That wasn’t part of the plan. “I…I don’t see anyone else here.” It was meant to be intimidating, Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver, but it didn’t come out that way. Instead, it sounded lonely. Where had everyone gone?
“Don’t worry about why,” he said, but again, his voice was wooden, emptied of feeling. “Empty your purse.”
She was looking at him, and he was pressing the knife against her neck. And that’s when he saw it, behind her game face—which was good, but then, she was from Detroit, this wasn’t her first rodeo—not the tears, not the narrowed eyes, but what was behind them, what the tremble in her shoulders meant: the fear. That unmistakable fear that he’d seen dozens, maybe hundreds of times that summer, the fear that, why not admit it, had given him power. The country might have been in Reagan’s death grip, the New Deal dismantled, AIDS running rampant, AKs in the streets, but as long as he could tear the lapel of a Brooks Brothers suit and get his fix while sending another fifty down south to arm the cartels in the process, he felt he was doing his part. He was in the fight. He saw the Yuppies begging for their lives, and in that moment he felt that he could win. But now, looking in Kira’s eyes—eyes that had once looked into his while screaming the name she’d given him, eyes that he had comforted himself with not on every long cold night (there had been many), but on one or two, every once in awhile returning to the idea that maybe somewhere out there was Kira, Kira who (he hoped, he liked to think) had loved him, who maybe even still did, even if only a little—he felt the anger bleed away. It was a terrifying feeling, because what had always sustained him, kept him moving regardless of the many incessant suggestions that he should simply give up, should simply roll up and die, was anger, that continuous fire at the center of him, like a cold fusion reactor that could produce an infinite supply of bile and spit and sacrificial blood. Anger. Heroin, too, yes, but Heroin was only the means. Anger was the beginning and anger was the goal. Anger, replaced now with sadness, sadness and a sudden unplumbable chasm of despair.
He dropped the knife. Kira waited for a moment, looking into his eyes, confused, not sure if she had convinced him somehow, or if it was another trick. When he didn’t move, she bent down to pick up the knife (bending at the knees, not at the waist, keeping her back straight, her eyes on him).
“Just go now, or I’ll call the police,” she said.
“Get out of here!” She was shaking, crying now for real, tears down the cheeks polluted with mascara, dark like the Detroit River.
“I didn’t mean to.”
She slashed the knife in the air—he had to jump back to make sure it missed his arm. There was still fear in her eyes, desperation, and anger, too. These were the things Harwell had made. He held up his hands. “Ok.” He backed toward the door. “Ok.” He turned the knob without turning his head. “Ok.” He ran out into the dark.
He ran for a few blocks, not sure if Kira would call the police or not, needing to put as much distance as he could between himself and the scene. He could blend in a little better downtown. Here, it would be too easy for them to find him. After he crossed the train tracks, he ducked into a package store and bought a $4 bottle of whiskey with the last of his cash. He got on a cross town bus at the corner with an expired transfer ticket.
By the time he returned to the squat, he’d finished the whiskey, and this combined with the fact that he hadn’t had any heroin for two days created a nested system of complex physical sensations—his stomach was upset but his head was spinning; his skin ached, but the area under his skin was bloomed with warmth; he felt like he might throw up, but also like he needed to eat something, everything, immediately.
He threw himself onto a pile of newspaper that he used to keep himself warm, and he lie there, supine, his arms splayed out to the sides, leaking drool onto the floor. He didn’t say anything for a long period of time, he was just thinking about blackness, endless blackness, and how he wanted to join with it, the anger all gone and replaced by a soul’s bare aching, a desire to be erased.
“I can’t get it out,” he said, finally, his words slurred by drink and wet with saliva that tasted of bile. “I can’t get out of my face, this hole, Rollo, this big damned hole. What’s the use of fucking walk in one direction, put that shirt in the dryer, deposit your $45 dollars into a savings fuck, I can’t even keep three quarters in my pockets, Rollo, they’re all full of holes. Why is everything turning black as all—Where is she, Rollo? Tell me where she is? She wanted to show me something—I remember when I was a kid, before I hated my dad, before I hated anyone or fucking destroyed, didn’t want to fight. Play catch in the yard. You ever play catch? I think, once, we played catch, but I don’t remember. I can’t remember if I played catch with my dad, or if that’s just a movie. Flying a kite. Sit on his lap. He’s smoking a pipe. I remember smelling like a pipe, but holy fucking god is that just a dream? Is that some TV show we watched in the union hall together, Rollo? Rollo! Where on this fuckhole of an earth is there anything of my own? Mine. Mine!” He leaned over, threw up in an old Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. Half of it missed and splattered onto the floor. “Where did I…” He was facedown now on Rollo’s pile of magazines and ace bandages. “I stabbed her. I put that knife into her, Rollo, and the blood just poured out of her like fucking…it’s not like, like, nothing…she bled all over the ground, and I couldn’t make the blood go backward, and I didn’t want to stab her, and I wanted her to see me. She saw me, for fuck’s…she saw me, Rollo.”
The words were coming, but he didn’t know where they were coming from or where they were going, and soon he stopped making them and lay there moaning, moans that may have been meant as words, but words that were lost somewhere between his brain and his throat. His face, still dirty with his own sick, was stuck to something. He pulled it off in a wide baton toss of a gesture, and held it far away to look at it, concentrating to focus his vision on the glossy magazine. Penthouse. Madonna’s spread. He opened it, muttering all the while, and turned to the center. And there she was.
They were black and white photos, boudoir shots, and the woman in them was laying prone across a white sheet, her dark hair unstyled like she’d just made love to someone, her eyes pointed downward, hand covering one breast bashfully, the other just visible beneath the curve of her elbow. She was just a girl, really, no make-up, her eyes dark, her face expressive and bright like a silent movie heroine—she looked more like Mary Pickford than an ‘80s pop star. Staring at her, naked and alone, Harwell was filled with an incredible tenderness. There was no anger in him then, and no lust in him either—it was not a desire for her body, not an anger at her being displayed that way for everyone to see, $1.95 at your local 7-11, no, it was the beauty, not the beauty of a woman from the eyes of a straight man, but the fact of her vulnerability, the beating heart beneath those breasts, the veins he swore he could almost trace beneath her skin, the secrets he felt he knew hiding behind the aperture of her eyes.
“It’s so beautiful,” he said, not fighting back the urge to cry, the need to just break and let everything fall away.
He looked up. Rollo wasn’t there. He was alone.
But he wasn’t alone for very long, because there were footsteps coming down the length of the alley. A billy club pushed open the broken, knobless door of the squat. Harwell was shivering—the cop was backlit by the lights from the alley such that he seemed to be more than a mere mortal. Harwell clenched his teeth. He knew what was coming, had foreseen it, had been waiting for it since the moment he fell, wriggling and cold and covered in blood, to this wet and inhospitable earth. In his heart, he felt the lightness of something old and lost to him, the feeling of being exactly where he was meant to be at exactly the right time.
The cop stepped in, twirling his club around on the tips of his fingers. He smiled a smile not of anger, not a vindictive smile, but one that meant he’d found exactly the thing he was looking for. “You Harwell?”