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We cruised the streets further and further from the beltway, closer and closer to home, until I picked up an invitation-only burst from a substreet club I never quite managed to outgrow. It had been a while since I dropped into Rubberneck, so either the crowd started off thin, or the poli-punks had already started calling it a night. After being away so long, I imagined I was low on the guest list, low enough that I rarely even got the invites before the place was packed to the point where people started thinking of the fire marshal’s occupancy limit as more than just a suggestion.
The pylons that supported the network of overpasses above the sprawling warehouse made Rubberneck seem like a grand, sprawling temple. The first time I saw it, at twelve years old, the place might as well have been the Taj Mahal. But it was a Taj Mahal that was tossed off one of the bridges overhead, discarded out a car window, and nestled among half-crushed cans and plastic wrappers whipping in the wind. Back then, it didn’t matter to me that it was a gutted storage facility that probably hadn’t been swept out since the turn of the century. For a kid, it was easy access to cheap liquor, fringe music, and radical ideas.
As my teenage years drew to a close, though, I told my girlfriend at the time, “We all grow up, I guess.” And I left her and Rubberneck behind for a long time. Nearly everyone there eventually outgrows the place. Suddenly holding down a job becomes more important than a night out discussing the failure of government over too much house whiskey. A look around reveals that, instead of colluding with like-minded political souls, fueled by that same whiskey, you’re just sitting in a bar with different shit hung on the walls.
If you do you homework for real, and not just spout stilted facts from third-hand accounts, you realize that the same man who owns Rubberneck, owns seven other clubs between DC and Baltimore. Two of those clubs are tucked high up inside the Beltway. The men in those clubs know that their kids are down here, talking revolution, but they know those kids will realize the same thing I did. We all grow up. The difference is that those kids are bound for the clubs where their fathers smoke cigars and pretend they don’t know what house whiskey is. When I grew up, I was bound for a lot less.
But I realized a lot sooner than most. And I did my homework.
A few kids lingered at the fire door near the Crouch, a low concrete shelf jutting from one of the pillars that was a hook-up pad since I was their age, probably even before. The toughs smoked with a couple of dishwashers wearing dirty, white aprons. They wore retro suit jackets, vintage threads with their red ties unknotted, some sort of ironic statement, I supposed. One had drawn the classic anarchy A, but the red clashed with his necktie, and that symbol played itself out decades ago. Anarchy failed. He apparently missed the broadcast.
They all put on their best hard faces the moment I stepped out of the sedan that Walt had parked in the middle of the open lot. They sized up my suit, my age, tried to look harder. Walt swung his legs out of the car, stood up to his full height, and put the width of his frame on display. The kids went for broke, tried to stay hard. “The fuck are you?”
They hadn’t done their homework, not like I had when I was doing this same routine. My homework gave me names, names I dropped like precision munitions. “The guy Anders sent to tell you two For-Foods-in-waiting to get back to loading the dishwashers.”
“This guy for real?” Dishwasher One asked Two.
Two scowled, shook his head, but took a last drag like he was holding back spite. Sometimes, one name puts hard out of fashion. He ducked through the propped open door. “Whatever. I’m done anyhow.”
The three toughs stayed, but their feet shuffled. I remembered how hard it was to back down. But you have to know when enough is enough, and you want to learn that lesson without swallowing too many of your teeth. “Youth is bravery. Right, Walt?”
“S’what made me a monster.” I watched the nervous faces, but behind me I knew that the flecks were stirring across Walt’s skin.
I stepped through the middle of the group, through the doorway, and into a dark space filled with bass echoes. I glanced back. “We’re going to catch a different ride home, I think.”
Walt tossed the car remote at one of the punks. “It’s probably got ‘til daylight. Burn it down.”
The one face I could still see through the open door stared wide-eyed at the forged remote. Walt stiff armed him into the doorframe, on the boy with terrifying quickness, their faces separated by scant inches. “And stay outta the fuckin’ Services.”
He spun the kid out the door, kicking the doorstop out into the lot as part of the motion. The door slammed shut and, as my eyes adjusted, I picked up the gleam of the flecks in Walt’s eyes. “Really, man? Didn’t feel like doing the “stay in school” jingle for him, too?”
I heard Walt exhale lightly. “Sometimes bravery never learns.”
“Well, they’ll remember that, for sure. Think they’ll joyride it first or just head straight to a chop for the money?”
“I’m hoping it’s barely holding together when it rolls into a garage for stripping. Those punks earned a good time. Nobody pissed himself. Think I’m losing my edge, Mr. Cooper?”
“Your fleck batch is past it’s prime, sure. But that stopped being your edge a long time ago. Your edge is knowing that bravery never learns and still coming home to collect your due anyway, whether they’re intending to give it to you or not.”
“You softening me up for something?” As the darkness began dissolving into gray outlines I could see Walt looming over me, already scanning, probably seeing shades color in the darkness I’d never know.
“Yeah, you’re getting the night off so you don’t cramp my style with the ladies.”
“You find a lady here, and my ride home’ll probably be an ambulance.”
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