Across The Wire

Harmless Fun

By Alan ten-Hoeve

Matt’s fat, pimply ass slid out of his pants as he searched for the smoked cigarettes his older sister buried behind the garage. 

“Ain’t no way The Rockers could beat The Hart Foundation in a real fight. No way!”

“I dunno, man. They’re pretty fast.”

Matt rose hiking the back of his cutoffs with one hand, holding a squashed orange and black curl of a thing with the other. Held it out like he’d just found a ten-dollar bill. A trace of Liz’s lipstick stained the filter.

“Don’t matter. They fly around too much.” He stuck the crushed cig in his mouth. “When’s the last time you seen someone jump off a top rope during a real fight?”

The match caught on the fourth try. Matt pushed out his lips. Eyes crossed as he tried to line the match up to the remains of the cigarette. The flame touched Matt’s nose. He flinched, corrected the distance and the blacked end chuffed back to life. Matt shook out the match before it reached his fingers, inhaled a long drag, then doubled over coughing.

I took the butt. There was hardly anything left. Just a little ring of crinkled dirty-white paper before the filter started. I put it to my lips anyway, tried to imagine it was like kissing Liz, but Matt had soaked it with his spit. I dropped it back in the weeds where it belonged. 

Matt wiped the drool from his lips. “What the fuck, that’s still good.” 

He pinched the butt before I could step on it. Puffed like he was giving it little fish-kisses. The ember went down to the filter. It sizzled and smelled like burning plastic. Matt doubled over in another coughing fit. I almost didn’t hear Jimmy dragging the heels of his combat boots up the driveway.

Jimmy was the biggest kid in the seventh grade. He’d been left back twice and was one suspension away from permanent expulsion. It was only a matter of time. Everyone knew he’d started the dumpster fire behind the courtyard, and all the kids in town were afraid of him, even high schoolers. A good guy to have on your side, but not always good to have around.

“Better put your dicks away, girls. Though I’d probably need a microscope to see them anyway.” Jimmy cracked up.

Matt offered him the fried butt.

“Get the fuck outta here.” Jimmy pulled out a full softpack of his mother’s Dorals from the cargo pocket of his camo pants. The gold foil crown on the pack flashed sun “Swiped them before I left.”

Matt dropped the charred filter, toed it under the dirt, and reached for the pack. Jimmy pulled it away. 

“Uh-uh, not so fast! First I wanna see.”

We spent the next half hour in Matt’s garage, leering at nudie magazines his dad kept hidden in a broken minifridge blocked by his rusty tool chest.

“This is a treasure trove of fine trim,” Jimmy turned a magazine sideways, cocking his head at the same time so whatever he was looking at was still right-side up for him. “Huge fuckin’ titties, a natural redhead. Fuuuck! I might have to whip it out right here and take care of things.”

Matt peeked over a magazine with a french word on the cover. “Don’t get your jizz on my dad’s shit.”

Most kids wouldn’t dare tell Jimmy what to do with his jizz, but Matt’s dad, a former golden gloves boxer who could rip a telephone book in half, was someone even Jimmy wouldn’t cross.

Jimmy laughed. “Y’know I’m just playin’. I gotta fuckin hog anyway. I wouldn’t want to scare you.”

Jimmy tossed the magazine down, took out the pack of Dorals, shook one out.

“Not in here,” Matt said. “My dad’ll beat my ass.”

Jimmy had a plastic Bic lighter with a peeling American flag on it. He lit one cigarette after another as we walked around town, smoked them halfway down, then passed it. “You guys see wrestling last night?”

Matt took the cigarette and pointed the cherry at me. “This guy thinks The Rockers could take the Hart Foundation in a real fight.“ He took a big drag, coughed, and passed me the butt.

“That ain’t what I fuckin’ said.”

Jimmy made a face. “Who gives a shit? Ultimate Warrior would kick all their asses in less than a minute.”

There’s no arguing with idiocy, but I hadn’t learned that yet. “No way. He’s got too many muscles. He can’t hardly move around the ring.”

Jimmy poked a new Doral in the corner of his mouth and flicked his Bic. “That’s cuz he don’t have to. He’d fuck anybody up if he wanted.” He pushed his palms up and down over his head like he was doing Warrior’s gorilla press slam. Dark yellow ovals with rusty centers stained the pitts of his white t-shirt.

I let it drop, took the cigarette and puffed, trying to remember how many that made. I was lightheaded. My chest hurt. It felt like my mind wasn’t connected to my body. Arms and legs moved all by themselves. Carrying me down the Boulevard. So many cracks in the sidewalk.

We followed Jimmy into Krauzser’s where he stole a bag of beef jerky, then turned up a side street. Everyone was quiet as they ate. I was thirsty and wished Jimmy would’ve stolen a soda too. After a few blocks, Jimmy slowed. A familiar look on his face. He stopped in front of a house, jerked his chin at it. 

“Let’s do that one.”

Jimmy’s favorite activity was ringing people’s doorbells and running away. Ring and Run, he called it. Harmless fun.

Only once did we have any trouble. We hit too close to Matt’s home. Rang one of his neighbor’s houses. A geographical error. Matt didn’t want to do it but Jimmy had a way of phrasing things that made it hard to say no. “C’mon, don’t be a gay pussy.”

As soon as Matt pushed the bell he vaulted over the railing. There weren’t any bushes or cars close enough to hide behind so we followed him around the side of the house, running as fast as we could. When we got into the backyard we froze. The whole family was in the middle of a barbecue. For about three dumb seconds we all stared at each other, blinking, mouths hung open. We ran off but it was too late. Matt’s dad gave him a good one for that. Not for what he did. For getting caught. After that we learned our lesson, and agreed on some rules, like not hitting houses within a three block radius of our homes.

I tossed my cigarette as Jimmy walked toward the house all nonchalant. When Matt and I gave him the clear sign he went up the stoop, rang the bell. We hid behind a parked car as a bent old man answered the door. He looked up and down the street. 

“Hello?” He had a shaky old man voice. “Who’s there?”

We slapped our hands over our mouths so we didn’t laugh too loud. 

As the man went back inside, Jimmy mimicked him, “Hello? Hello?” and all 3 of us broke up.

After Jimmy it was Matt’s turn, then mine. That was the order. Sometimes we’d get a dud but with it being a Sunday most everyone was home. One guy got so mad he came out of his house and walked up and down the sidewalk cursing for like five minutes. He passed the hedges we were hiding behind twice but eventually gave up. We hit a few rich houses. Girls we had crushes on. The convent where the nuns lived.

The fun started to fizzle about an hour or so later. My head hurt from all the cigarettes and my legs were tired from running. We came up to a two-story house with peeling paint. We’d walked by the place many times in the past but deemed it too risky to hit. To get to the doorbell, you had to enter a screened-in porch, and there was a BEWARE OF DOG sign taped on the screen door.

Jimmy handed me the jerky, flicked his chin. “Let’s do this one.”

I paused mid-bite and looked at him like he was crazy. “You’re kiddin’, right?”

“C’mon! I’ve seen the lady who lives here.” Jimmy held his hands out from his chest and made a pinching gesture. “Big tits, no bra. She’s not as hot as Valerie Francesca but I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”

“There’s a fuckin’ dog sign right there. Breaks our number two rule.”

Jimmy waved his hand at it. “That’s just to scare off burglars. Ring and run.”

“Harmless fun,”Matt finished.

When I didn’t say anything Jimmy got annoyed. His face darkened and he got up close. His large body blocked out the sun. “Don’t be a gay pussy.”

I turned my face from Jimmy’s bad breath. “I’m not a gay pussy. I just don’t wanna do this anymore.”

“I don’t wanna do this anymore.” Jimmy mimicked me in a high-pitched girly voice and gave Matt an elbow. I could feel my face get hot. I wanted to hit him but I knew he’d kick my ass.

“Yeah, c’mon, just once more,” Matt added. “Don’t be a wuss.”

Two against one.

I folded the bag of jerky into my back pocket and stared at the house. “I don’t know—the porch—I don’t think I can open and close the door fast enough to get away.”

“That all?” Jimmy said. “I’ll hold the door open so you can just run out. Easy.”

I looked at Matt. 

He smiled around a cigarette. “Just this last one.”

I snatched the cigarette from Matt’s mouth. Took a long, slow drag, inhaled deeply, then tossed it on the sidewalk. Matt quickly picked it up and gave it his fish kisses.

My head throbbed. I wanted this to be done. “Alright, fine. Let’s get this over with.”

 “Yeah, that’s what I like to hear.” Jimmy grabbed me in a bear hug from the side, lifted me up, and humped me like a dog.

I climbed the crumbling front steps, wondering if I’d be able to clear them in one jump when it was time to flee. As I reached for the screen door I hoped it would be locked.

It wasn’t.

The spring groaned a little. I looked back over my shoulder. Matt was on the sidewalk, one foot in front of the other, ready to run. Jimmy had come up the steps behind me. He took the door handle. 

“Be quick.”

There was a ratty couch inside the porch. Old shoes and yard stuff littered the floor. Recycling bins overflowed with beer cans. The air smelled sour and musty. From where I stood, the front door looked about a mile away. My mouth was dry. The aftertaste of too many cigarettes mixed with jerky stung my throat.

Jimmy pushed me. “Go on!”

I gave him the finger and took a step forward. Floorboards creaked. Sweat broke out on my forehead. Halfway inside I leaned toward the door, stretched my arm out as far as I could without getting too close, and pressed the bell.

I prayed that the thing was broken, that it wouldn’t work, but I could feel the electrical pulse hum under my fingertip. In the tense silence a bell chimed inside the house. 

A dog barked and all the hair on my body stood up. I whipped around to bolt out the screen door only to see it slap closed. Jimmy was on the other side holding it shut. Below his evil eyes a huge grin split his face in half. I could hear the dog snarling on the other side of the door.

“What the fuck are you doing let me out!”

Matt was still on the sidewalk. Panic on his face. He glanced up and down the street. “Jimmy, what are you doing, we gotta run!”

I put my palms on the door frame and pushed but Jimmy pushed back against it, leaning all his weight on the other side. Laughing. He lifted his head, about to say something, then his evil eyes went wide. Without a word he let go, sprang down the steps, and took off with Matt trailing behind.

“Who the fuck’re you?!” 

I spun around and saw an enormous man standing in the doorway, holding one of the biggest dogs I’d ever seen by the collar. “I said, the fuck’re you?!” He looked around the porch. “Tryna steal my shit?”

I glanced at all the trash on the porch, wondering if he was joking. Before I could think of an excuse, he reached out with his free hand and grabbed the sleeve of my shirt. I turned away, heard a ripping sound, and pushed on the screen door. It was jammed. The dog barked viciously, pulling at its collar. 

Without thinking, I jumped through the steel mesh, tripped and tumbled down the front steps, and ran as fast as I could down the street. The dog’s paws galloped on the sidewalk behind me. A low, sustained growl rose from between a set of viselike jaws full of teeth the size of kitchen knives. 

I pulled the bag of jerky out of my pocket and let it fall to the ground. The galloping and growling stopped. I could hear the man yelling something about calling the cops.

When I caught up with Matt and Jimmy they were standing on the brown lawn of Jimmy’s crumbling apartment complex. “What the fuck was that?”

“I swear, I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Matt said. He was bent over, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. 

Jimmy had an amused sneer on his face. “It was just a joke. You better relax yoursel—”

My fist crashed into Jimmy’s face. Pain and wetness on my knuckles. He staggered back then balanced. His lip was split. He wiped it with his hand and stared at the blood. Then at me. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”

Jimmy charged low and tackled me to the ground. I felt like I’d been hit by a rhino. The wind left me like a departed spirit. I saw the sky, big and taunting in its blueness, then a salvo of softball-sized fists rained down on me. I tried to cover up but Jimmy was quick for a big kid. His knuckles found their way through. My face and head went numb from the blows. Colors flashed across my vision. A strange taste filled my mouth.

I could hear Matt screaming in the background but was unable to make out what he was saying. In an act of desperation, I blindly thrust my arm up and felt my knuckles connected with something pointy and hard. Jimmy went limp, slid to the side, and clutched his chin.

I rolled over, jumped on top of Jimmy, and swung wildly. I didn’t care what I was hitting. He covered his face, but after a few stiff shots his arms fell. Something crunched. The sight of blood spurting from his nose fuelled my rage. It was like I’d left my body and something else was controlling it. 

Jimmy lifted his knee into my tailbone. A shockwave of pain shot up my back. My limbs tingled and went numb. Jimmy heaved me off. We tumbled over and over. When we stopped, Jimmy was on top of me again. He drove another fist into my face. I tried to lift my arms but they wouldn’t work.

Then the blows ceased and a high-pitched screech broke through the haze. Matt had two handfuls of Jimmy’s greasy hair, pulling him off. And another sound cut through the frenzy. A voice.

“One on one, Matt! One on one!”

Everyone froze. Jimmy’s mom leaned her bulk in the doorway of the apartment building. She calmly sucked on a cigarette as if she was just watching something on TV. Massive breasts strained at her shirt. She blew out a plume of smoke. 

“One on one, Matt. You gay pussy.” Jimmy’s little sister Katie peaked around her mother’s hip.

The fight went out of us. Jimmy and I got to our feet. His face was bloody and swollen. The skin around his eyes turning purple. I couldn’t see my face, but it felt the way Jimmy’s looked.

“See you at school tomorrow?” I said.

Jimmy rubbed his side. “Yeah, see ya.”

Without another word, Matt and I walked away. Jimmy went into his building. His mom stood there watching us until we turned out of sight.

I touched my head and face and winced. Hills of pain rising all over my skull. “I feel like I was hit by a car.”

Matt was suppressing a smile.

“Glad you think this is funny.”

“You shoulda jumped off the top rope.”

I started to laugh, but it hurt too much.

Matt held out the soft pack of Dorals. “Jimmy dropped ‘um when you were fighting.”

I poked one between my swollen lips and winced.


Alan ten-Hoeve wrote Notes from a Wood-Paneled Basement (Gob Pile Press). @alantenhoeve on twitter and ig.