Reed picked change off the floorboard of his Buick parked outside the Blue Note to pay the cover for the Oi! show. It had been a few weeks since he’d had income, so he gathered his quarters and dimes, some of which stuck to sawdust and wood splinters that had been kicked off Reed’s boots at some point. Reed was a skilled carpenter and renovated houses for a guy named Wayne, who flipped the houses and rehired Reed and his buddy Shay when he had cash from a sale to invest in a new property. Reed had at least hoped for some side work—maybe doing maintenance on one of Wayne’s rental properties—while the latest house sat on the market. But nada.
Inside the bar, it didn’t surprise Reed that he was the only black guy there. People were often confused by Reed being black and a skinhead, but fuck it. This had been his scene since he was a kid.
Shay, already planted at the bar, waved Reed over. “Working class, working fast, now our work is in the past,” Shay sang and lifted his beer.
“You have to scrape change off the floor to get into the show, too?” Reed took a seat.
“Please, in the wake of our little income hiatus, I still have class.” Shay had already begun to slur his words.
“You bummed the money from some chick, didn’t you?”
Shay laughed. “Just cause you choose to idealize women doesn’t mean I can’t just sleep with them and ask for money.”
“Right,” Reed said. Shay had a dick side to him ever since the two first met, right after Shay had shaved into Oklahoma City’s skinhead scene, steel-toed boots, flight jackets, Sham 69 patches and all. But the kid was tolerable, so Reed had pulled him alongside in doing renovations for Wayne.
Listen to some fiction. Here, an ode to the superstore and its people. Produced in collaboration with The Texas Observer.
“Who’d you have to whore yourself out to for that Guinness?” Reed asked.
“Actually, those guys over there bought it for me.” Shay pointed to three men standing by the stage. Reed gauged the men: tucked-in polo shirts, rolled-up jeans, and boots. “We were shooting the shit about music and whatever just before you got here.”
“They new to Oklahoma City?” Reed asked.
“Driving through from some shit town near the Texas border. Say they’re friends with one of the opening bands.”
The bar continued to fill with local punks and skins mingling amongst a handful of unfamiliar faces: roadies, kids new to the scene. Reed had only come out for the headliner, Shellshock.
“Dude, you’ll never guess what I saw today,” Shay continued. “I drove by that four-plex Wayne owns and these two Mexican dudes were out rebuilding the fence around it. Did you know Wayne had other guys working for him?”
“Why would he hire more dudes if he doesn’t even have work for us?”
“That’s shit, man.” Shay downed the rest of his Guinness. “Pure shit.”
When the bartender finally made her way to Reed, he ordered the cheapest beer on tap, but coveted the idea of a Red Stripe. Red Stripe was the beer of his uncle, the guy who’d raised him on stories of what the skinhead scene looked like in ’69, a fusion of Jamaican Rude Boy and Hard Mods—a beer-drinking, reggae-listening, working-class counter-culture. Reed’s uncle had been the one to first take Reed to shows, starting with Oklahoma City and then Dallas, Memphis, even Chicago once. Reed loved the music and culture from day one, even though by that time, the ‘80s, the scene had become less diverse, stereotyped on account of the bullshit neo-Nazis that had appropriated the fashion from original skinheads.
With a PBR in hand, Reed walked over to the pool tables.
“Got the next game?” Reed heard a girl’s voice beside him. He turned to face a brunette, half her head buzzed with two lightening bolts shaved into it.
“You can have it.” Reed said, instantly admiring her smile.
“Cool.” The girl pulled over a bar stool while she waited. “I’m Hailey,” she said and hopped onto the seat, her booted feet dangling.
Reed introduced himself and then pretended to direct his attention at the bearded guy who failed to corner-kiss the 4-ball into the top right pocket.
“What’s your arm say?” Hailey pointed to the two ink wrenches that cross-boned on Reed’s right bicep.
Hailey pulled down the left sleeve of her red flannel shirt, revealing her white spaghetti strap, burgundy lace bra and Rock Island tattoo. “My grandpa worked for the railroads his entire life and helped take care of me and my mom.”
“You get that in honor of him?”
“Yeah, just after he passed.”
“That’s solid.” Reed felt nervous, in a good way. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Reed walked over to the bar and placed his order. The three out-of-towners Shay had met earlier were ordering a round of beer and giving Reed some dirty-ass looks. Reed reached for the whiskey in front of him, but before he could pick it up, one of the out-of-towners clipped the drink with his elbow, its contents pouring onto Reed’s shirt. “What the fuck, dude?” Reed said. The meathead simply flicked his wrist as a form of an apology. The impulse to sock the dude in the jaw only lasted a second as Reed thought about Hailey.
The bartender poured another whiskey. Reed handed Hailey the drink as the first band struck its opening chords. “Thanks.” She pulled him up to the front of the stage, careful not to spill her Jim Beam as a mosh pit formed at the center of the audience. Half the crowd rushed the stage and Reed made sure to stand his ground and not get pushed on top of Hailey. Not that Reed would have minded being on top of Hailey, but he didn’t want to hurt her. She held her own, throwing her fist in the air and tossing her head as if instantly submerged in the explosions raging from the speakers. Reed moved to the song as well, feeding off Hailey’s energy.
After a few numbers, the band stopped to readjust their amps. Hailey’s face flushed from the heat accumulating in the middle of the crowd, and Reed heard Shay, who spoke drunkenly over at the left hand of the stage, next to Meathead and the rest of the out-of-towners. “Yeah, he now has these Mexicans doing the job. It’s shit man, pure shit.”
The drummer clicked off the next song, a fast, chaotic rhythm that hyped up the crowd. A circle pit formed behind Reed. He stretched out his arms to save Hailey from the pulsing fist of some dude with a green mohawk. Hailey laughed as Reed became protective of her. She leaned down and gave Reed’s arm a solid lick. It sent a jolt through Reed’s entire arm, across his chest and down his sternum. As the jolt about hit his waistline, he felt an unpleasant shock go through his ribs and realized another one of the out-of-towners had followed the circle pit over and landed an elbow right into his side.
The guy with the green mohawk pushed the scumbag back into the pit, then leaned into Reed and screamed over the music. “Bastards don’t know how to dance.” But Reed knew this went beyond just a lack of mosh etiquette. That elbow was intentional. He felt a surge of anger. Hailey danced in place, her shoulders shimmying to the beat. He wondered if jealousy of her attention had sparked this conflict. He contemplated taking his revenge on that last elbow by moving even closer to Hailey, but before he could put the thought into action, he felt a hard hit connect with his ear, leaving his vision momentarily blurry. Reed took a step to the side to catch himself.
“Whoa.” Hailey grabbed hold of his arm.
Once the little black dots were gone, all Reed saw was red. He turned around and landed two solid blows to Scumbag’s jaw. Took one hit to the eye and then got one off to the dude’s nose. Blood and sweat splattered across Reed’s knuckles and Scumbag’s shirt. Meathead with his drink-knocking-elbows jumped on Reed’s back and went for the choke hold. Reed flipped him over his shoulder and landed a heel to the guy’s rib. A crack underneath his boot.
Five or six guys tried to break up the fight. Meathead stayed on the ground. Scumbag charged again. Reed swung and stomped, swung and stomped. No stable thoughts. Just rage, sweat, and an SS tattoo peeking from underneath Scumbag’s ripped shirt. There was the sound of a Taser—300,000 volts.
“Man, fuck those Nazi cunts.” Reed spit up a little blood as he was escorted from the bar to his car, after the bouncer was sure the freshly Tasered Nazis had left.
“Dude, what all the hell happened?” Shay ran up to Reed’s car, his sunken eyes revealing how much booze he’d downed.
“You were playing buddy-buddy all night with Hitler’s finest, that’s what happened.” Reed reached in his pocket for his car keys, his hands still shaky and his knuckles tender and tight.
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you were too busy sucking those out-of-towners’ dicks for drinks to notice their racism?”
“We just talked about work and music,” Shay said. “Honestly, I didn’t know shit was going down until you already had a guy on the floor.”
Reed unlocked his car and took his spot behind the wheel. He didn’t know if the fight scared Hailey or if Shay had a ride home. His anger drowned out whatever Shay was saying as he peeled out of the parking lot.
Shay apologized to Reed again the following morning and presented a peace offering: a one-day-gig repainting the old chapel at Dewey and 27th. The two made fifty bucks apiece from the job, which was enough to buy forgiveness, two packs of smokes and a few groceries. Still, both were getting desperate for steady work. Reed spent the following weeks looking for jobs on Craigslist. Delivering firewood. Shampooing carpet. Doing yard work. And he looked for Hailey in bars. Bar after bar: no luck.
Finally good news came. After two and a half months on the market, a red “Sold” ribbon was pasted on top of the yard sign in front of the last house he had renovated for Wayne. It took several phone calls to finally get hold of Wayne, but once Reed did, it was confirmed: he and Shay could begin work next week.
Both showed at 8:30 sharp Monday morning to a house at 25th and Shartel. The house looked in bad shape but had potential. Ready to get to work, Reed walked inside to find the living room painted and the fireplace newly bricked.
“You think Wayne’s been working on this house solo?” Shay asked.
Curious to see what else had been renovated, Reed walked through the house and to the basement, where he startled two men working on a light fixture.
“Hi,” one of them said and walked over, extending his hand. His English was too broken to explain why they were there.
“Did I not tell you Miguel and Emilio are working for me as well?” Wayne said over the phone as Reed walked back through the house. “I’m sorry I couldn’t afford to keep on all four of you guys while I waited for the other house to sell. I thought Miguel and Emilio could at least give you guys a head start.” Wayne mentioned a remodel for the master bedroom closet and then hung up.
After one week of work, Reed learned more about what affordable meant to Wayne. “He’s only paying them $8 an hour,” Shay told Reed as the two sat in Reed’s tiny living room, playing records.
“That’s barely minimum wage.” Reed said. Wayne had never paid Reed less than $12 an hour.
“That’s illegal workers for you.” Shay stomped over to a stack of vinyls.
“Does it matter? We don’t work for two months because two dumb Mexicans think $8 is a lot of money or some bullshit and agree to do our jobs for half the cost. It completely devalues us.”
Reed didn’t care for the way Shay said “Mexicans.” He wanted to agree with Shay, but he didn’t want to feel like a Nazi, so he kept quiet. Reed told himself it didn’t matter what Miguel and Emilio were getting paid as long as Reed got paid too. But two weeks of labor and one paycheck later, Reed was forced out of his uneasy neutral state.
The four were rebuilding the kitchen cabinets on payday. When Wayne showed up, he handed Reed a paycheck that was $50 more than it should have been. Reed smiled at Wayne and asked, “What’s this for?” The thought that it was for impeccable work only lasted a second as Reed looked at Wayne’s nervous face.
“Reed, the economy these days… ” Wayne scratched the back of his head, a tuft of brown hair now sticking out. “I just can’t keep affording all this. I tried it out again, you know, I really loved having you and Shay around, but…”
Reed didn’t need to continue listening to know he had just been outsourced by two $8-an-hour workers. If Reed hadn’t absolutely needed the money, he would have gladly told Wayne to shove the $50 severance package up his ass.
After Wayne left, Miguel and Emilio got into their shitty early ‘90s pick-up. “Bye, bye,” Miguel said.
Bye, bye. The words made Reed want to grab Miguel by the hair, pull him out of the truck through the window, and stomp his face. Bye, bye.
“Go fuck yourself,” Reed said.
Miguel’s smile dropped instantly and he looked confused as the two drove away. Reed contemplated throwing a rock through their rear windshield, running after them, jumping in the bed of their truck.
Reed and Shay processed the news by shot-gunning beers and blaring Combat 84 from two 25-inch speakers in Reed’s living room. “We should go jump those Mexicans,” Shay said, riled up and stomping to the music. “We should at least make them bleed.” Reed pounded beers in agreement, feeling closer to Shay than he ever had, bonded by misfortune.
The two managed to kill a 30-pack and still feel the thirst, so they walked down the street to the small, hole-in-the-wall convenience store. They brought a case of Miller High Life to the counter where a short Hispanic man in his late 20s stood at the register. Shay let out an exasperated and very drunken laugh as he set down the beer. “Of course you’d be the one with a job.” Shay leaned on the counter. His grin sobered Reed up a little. “Let me ask you something, did you steal this job from an American as well?”
Reed elbowed Shay in the arm. “Pay the dude.”
Shay laughed and pulled some ones from his wallet. “You did, didn’t you? I mean that’s pretty much what you guys do.”
“What’s this guy talking about?” the cashier said, no accent, obviously from around here.
“What am I talking about?” Shay laughed even harder. “How much you getting paid for this shit job? Did you lowball some legitimate worker from making a decent earning?”
“Dude, come on.” Reed pulled on Shay’s shoulder.
“You fucking did, didn’t you?” Shay dropped his wallet on the ground, a few bills slipping out of it.
“He’s really drunk,” Reed said.
“I can’t sell you beer if this guy’s already toasted and making a fool of himself,” the cashier said.
Shay grabbed his wallet and the wad of bills from the floor with one hand and stood up. His free hand, balled in a fist, made a solid right connection over the counter into the cashier’s nose. Reed took a step back, caught as off-guard as the cashier who stumbled into a rack of cigarettes.
Shay jumped over the counter. “I’m the fool.” He punched the cashier’s eye, his jaw, his temple. Reed could see that Shay was unleashing all his anger and that it felt good to him. Reed felt something else. “It’s your people that are the fools.” Shay slurred, landing a boot to the cashier’s stomach before Reed grabbed Shay.
“Quick, let’s go,” Shay said, grabbing the beer off the counter and running out the door. But Reed stayed. Blood seeped from the gash above the cashier’s left eye and his face had already begun to swell.
The cashier gasped short shallow breaths, curled onto the floor.
Reed felt a hollow pit in his stomach. Looking down at the bloody cashier, Reed felt ashamed that he had even agreed to jump Miguel and Emilio. Reed grabbed a biker bandana from the rack of sunglasses and applied pressure to the cashier’s wounds. He looked through the glass window front to his right, but couldn’t see Shay anywhere.
“I need help,” the cashier said, exasperated, drained of color from his face as he tried to stand up.
“You need to sit still until the bleeding stops.” Reed eased the cashier back onto the floor where dozens of cigarettes packs lay, knocked off the shelves.
“Do I need stitches?” The cashier’s voice shook. “I need to talk to my girlfriend. I need to talk to Jasmine.”
“Where’s your phone?” Reed followed the man’s directions and found the Android behind the register. While the cashier called his girlfriend, Reed, nauseated, replayed the image of Shay’s satisfied expressions as he threw his punches.
Within five minutes, the cashier’s girlfriend arrived. Jasmine ran out of her car, leaving a silhouetted figure in the driver-side seat. “Some Nazi started talking shit about ‘my people’ and then jumped me,” the cashier told her.
“Whoa, whoa, he’s not a Nazi,” Reed said, but the two ignored him.
Jasmine bent down to comfort her boyfriend and pulled out her phone. “Hello, 911.” She stroked her boyfriend’s hair. “Don’t worry, Mark, Hailey’s in the car and can drive you straight to the hospital if needed.”
Hailey? Reed directed his attention to the car, a flush of embarrassment sweeping over him.
He punched the cashier’s eye, his jaw, his temple.
“My boyfriend has been assaulted,” Jasmine continued into the phone.
If that really was his Hailey in the car, Reed needed to explain himself, explain Shay, Miguel, Emilio, explain how he knew this whole thing was fucked up.
“How many Nazis were there, baby?” Jasmine asked Mark.
“Two,” Mark said.
Two. The number made Reed’s feet move. He ran—out the door, past the car, around the block, up the street. He didn’t hear his feet on the pavement or Jasmine yelling after him or the sound of imagined police sirens. He only heard the silence of the car’s silhouetted figure.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 16, August 15, 2014.