Leon and I used to drive through the older suburbs at around eight, when the cleaning ladies were all heading home. They’d be huddled inside the bus shelters, wrapped in their big puffy coats that made them look like the bags of insulation dad kept in the attic. We’d stop my truck at the light, even if it was green, and Leon would roll down the window and he’d just start yellin’, “Hey! Hey you!” and the ladies would look away, thinking that we were going to do something crass or cruel, and then Leon would should “Yeah you! Jesus loves you!” Then their looks would turn from fear to total confusion, right before our eyes, and I’d hit the gas and we’d peel off faster than dirt.
I liked it when Leon came up with that prank. We weren’t religious or anything, we just thought it was funny. It was different from the kind of pranks the other kids our age pulled. It was kinda positive. Leon was always tryin’ to do stuff like that, set ourselves apart from the path everyone else was on. We weren’t going to do anything cruel for the sake of being cruel, or rebellious for the sake of being rebellious. Like the night a girl in our class got her brother to buy everyone beer and threw a party. We went, but we sat in the basement, drinking fresca and leaning up against the chest freezer, making up songs about the people upstairs drinking because they thought it was something they had to do.
Leon said that kind of behaviour was in the blood at our school, and that kids just act tough because they all knew one day they would have to give up everything, and get jobs at the Wal-Mart on the edge of town. Leon said everything they did was just pointless, letting off steam, and that living that way was dishonest. That’s how Leon explained it, anyway, and I agreed with him though I didn’t have many strong feelings on the matter. I liked being around him more and more since mom split most of her time between driving Mikey to extracurriculars and fighting with dad. Leon promised that we wouldn’t live like any of them. He called us the last two honest men.
Some nights thinking this way got us into trouble with the other kids. We went bowling one Saturday and pulled around the mall parking lot to sit on my hood and watch traffic, and this small group of kids walked up and asked us if we had any beers, or weed, or cough syrup or anything.
I said no, real quiet and meek, speaking into the collar of my shirt.
Leon hopped to his feet and pressed toward the guy, shoutin’ “No, man. Is that all you want? Why do you need that stuff? If that’s all you want, you’re not gonna find it here.” The kid he was yelling at pushed back, and said something crass about Leon’s mother, about having sex with her. That’s what these kids do, they always go for the mothers.
Leon turned to see me still sitting on the hood of the truck. I looked afraid. The kid said a thing about Leon’s mother again and gave him a quick jab in the collarbones with his fingers. Leon took a swing and missed, calling the kid a fake and a liar. I slunk down and came up behind Leon to help. The two tossed punches back and forth, each one missing. Leon’s last miss landed in the big kid’s hands; he swung Leon’s forearm around and pinned him to the pavement. Leon squirmed as the big kid started leaning into his arm real hard with his knee, and pulling up on the rest of it until the whole bone snapped like a branch. Leon shrieked and gargled on the ground. Before I could finish calling out Leon’s name, one of the other kids pushed the hot end of his cigarette into my shirt and it burned right through to my chest. My eyes went white and all the muscles crowded around my neck. When I shook it off and looked around, my face flush and my arms flooded with anger, it was too late. The other kids were gone. I picked up Leon by his other arm and walked him into my truck. On the way to the hospital he just kept repeating, “Damn liars, damn fakes. Damn liars, damn fakes.”
Leon didn’t say a word the whole drive away from the hospital. We both lived on the newer suburbs on either side of 18th, in thin houses with garages that back into long, shared alleys. By the time I got him to his house it was quarter to four in the morning, and we could see the light on in the kitchen, and Leon’s parents waiting by the window. His mom woke up every day to be at the Wal-Mart by six and his dad managed a grocery store in town. Neither of them looked too happy and Leon crawled out of the car without saying goodbye.