Tuesday, April 27, 2004

cruel and usual punishment

It’s 4am and the lights are off in my folks’ house and somebody is shaking me awake. I’m still pretty drunk from earlier, half dreaming. It’s Capone. He’s breathing in my face, saying “get the fuck up.” He says it in this panicked whisper, the one that always meant something bad.
He says there was a fight after I left the house party, got jumped by some guys. Says it’s time for payback. He’s very drunk, and I can see him sweating in the dim light, all shiny with huge eyes, that vein sticking out of his forehead. This was getting to be routine at this point, so I knew the drill. I throw on sneakers and a beanie to cover my eyes. I ask how many. He says doesn’t know, maybe four or five. I grab an iron firepoker on the way out.
Tony and Fingers are waiting in the car. Capone drives us down through the neighborhood toward the house. The stereo, usually at full volume, is off, and everyone’s quiet with eyes out the windows. That tension sort of makes your ears ring, so quiet you hear the tires screech on the corners a little and pennies sliding in the dashboard and the drunk breathing in the back seat.
We drive past the party and it’s broken up, everybody gone. Capone is going nuts, punching the steering wheel yelling “you mutherfucking piece of fucking shit.” He keeps driving and takes a couple turns, and suddenly we’re up on the main strip through town. We usually avoided that strip, because of the heavy police patrols and streetlights. But everybody knew what was going on. There was a chance one of the guys would be walking home, and if so he’d be on the safest street in town, which at that hour was this one.
Turns out we were right. But it was only one guy. Capone saw him first, walking on the left side of the street up ahead with his back to us. He yelled for everyone to get down and don’t look. We drove past, and they guy kept walking straight. Had no idea it was us. We drove two more blocks and Copone took a left onto a backstreet and parked and we all got out. I pull down my beanie, and we walked over to wait for him behind a little Mexican restaurant on the corner.
Here we go. He walks past, sees us, and is instantly off like a shot running straight down the strip. We chase him. Capone and I were the fast ones, and he’s in the lead with me about six feet behind. I’ve still got the firepoker. Capone is swearing like a goddamn sailor at the guy, running with arms flailing. I’m slapping my feet down as fast as I can trying to breathe, and I’m thinking about police and witnesses more than this guy right now.
He was fast, and we tailed him at full sprint for two and a half blocks, which felt like it took hours to cover. He finally cuts left and runs to the front door of a big white house, up some stairs onto a latticed porch, hoping to wake somebody up. This was his unlucky day. The house was converted into a law office. Nobody home to wake up.
Copone got to him first. The guy was about a foot taller than him, and took his punch and they grappled on the porch. I show up second. And so here I am, holding this goddamn firepoker. And in this moment of drunken rage, I hit him with it. Hard on the upper back. Again and again. Capone gets out of the way. The guy tries to grab the poker, and he’s a lot stronger than me, and I start kicking his legs. Tony and Fingers show up, and one of them punches him. I get the poker back and take one last swing.
I hit him square in the head, almost on accident, and he sort of crumples against the wall and lets out this sound, and pieces of the lattice fall down on him, and after a few more kicks it’s over.
Capone bends over and starts throwing up on all fours. I’m spinning around, freaked out looking for police and gasping for air. We lift Capone and run for the car, never looking back. The whole thing lasted 5 minutes.
I dumped the poker—now L-shaped, unbelievably—in a dumpster and was in bed before sun-up.
The guy was hurt bad. Eye surgery, lacerations, collarbone, a stay in the hospital. He never went to the police. Capone stayed nervous for years afterward, always thinking the guy would show up at the next party with a shotgun.
But it never came. The guy got locked up a few months later for outstanding warrants, and they kept him in almost two years on related charges. Everything blew over.
Years later, I found out there were no other guys that night.
Capone never got jumped at any party. The truth is the guy just pissed him off in conversation, for a reason no one remembered, just like a million other times Capone got pissed off and fucked somebody up.
I remember thinking, “We almost killed a guy and nobody even remembers why the next day?” That’s the kind of shit that keeps you up at night, the fear he must’ve felt seeing us come at him, knowing what comes next.
I still about that shit sometimes, even now. And that makes me think in the long run there really are no unpunished crimes.

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