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Thugs

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In the deserted thoroughfares I heard the rumble of thug music, heavy with bass and shot through with electric guitar.

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Illustration by Stephen Olson.

My husband and I sat at the kitchen table and agreed to get divorced. We did not raise our voices. We did not place blame. Beneath the tattoo of a torch on his forearm, a muscle jumped. Finally I got up and made coffee, which he complained was too bitter. “We should go out,” my husband said, pushing himself away from the table. “Is it safe?” I said. “Hard to say,” he said.

It was a humid night, insects buzzing in the trees. The buses weren’t running, so we walked to the movies, and ended up seeing a French film, a romantic comedy that neither of us liked. I knew my husband thought the film was too long when his leg started jiggling halfway through. He likes action movies.

On the walk home he said, “I look forward to never again watching the stupid movies you choose.” “Great,” I said. “It will be great,” he said.

That was when the sound floated up, ghostly, the sound of a woman moaning. From a block away we saw her in the road, leg twisted, hair fanned on the asphalt. I stopped, the half-empty bag of popcorn still in my fist. “Come on,” my husband said.

The woman’s gold lamé dress was bunched around her middle. Her black bangs swept her forehead as she turned her face side to side, her mouth glistening. My husband knelt down, put a hand to her face. “What happened?” he asked. “I think my leg is broken,” she said. He touched the woman’s knee. “Here?” “I think so,” she said.

Her accent was hard to place, but it was familiar to me: heavy, and full of smoke. “Let’s go home,” I whispered, but my husband looked at me, disgusted. “We have to get her to a hospital,” he said. The look on his face confirmed that he thought something was wrong with me. Also, that he had to be heroic; he couldn’t help it. The woman blinked and spat blood on the street. “They did this,” she said. “Them.” “Can you get up?” my husband asked. “I think so,” she said.

Already philosophical, Inez called the attack an unfortunate collision with reality.

I had heard these thugs in our neighborhood. At night I heard them upending garbage cans, cracking the lids off mailboxes. One night a rock shattered our bedroom window and jolted us out of bed, screaming. No pictures of these thugs were shown on the nightly news, but I imagined them in jumpsuits, masks, maybe, with long hair, or their heads closely shaved. I imagined beards, scars, earrings, and teeth.

“What’s your name?” my husband asked the woman. “Inez,” she said. My husband helped Inez to her feet. She leaned against him as he daubed blood from her mouth with his t-shirt sleeve. Already philosophical, Inez called the attack an unfortunate collision with reality. My husband laughed. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I still hate their guts.” “They need to be stopped,” I said. “Fat chance,” Inez said.

My husband told us it was a long way to the hospital, and we’d better get started. When he lifted Inez, his muscles flared. They hurried ahead. I lagged. “Come on,” my husband told me. “You come on,” I said.

We trekked the neighborhood’s winding streets. I caught up and asked Inez questions. “Where are you from?” “Around here,” she said. “I mean originally,” I said. She was quiet for a second, then confided, “It’s happened to me more than once, you know. As soon as I recover they come back for more.”

The streetlamps along the road had been smashed, glass crunched underfoot. From the pocket of his jeans my husband pulled a flashlight, and trained its beam through the shadows. “We’ve got to find a place to camp,” he said. We snuck behind an apartment building and camped down in the grassy courtyard. The heat held. Mosquitoes landed on our faces and necks. During the night I thought I heard the voices of thugs giving orders, shouting to each other to apply pressure, break glass.

At dawn I heard Inez and my husband talking. Inez sat cross-legged, fixing her hair. My husband sawed the lid off a soup can with his pocketknife. “Today will be bad,” he told me. “We should go.” There was beard on his jaw now, urgency in his voice. He passed me the can, and I scooped up what was left with my fingers.

In nearby neighborhoods, the damage was worse already. We saw buildings with their doors removed, furniture on front stairs, bedding piled at the curb. Inez clung to my husband’s neck, and said her leg felt better. “Downtown’s that way,” I said. “No, it’s not,” my husband said.

Spray-painted messages curled and overlapped on shop windows. Quit While You’re Ahead, one said.

By the time we reached the main shopping district, exhausted, the sun was going down. In the deserted thoroughfares I heard the rumble of thug music, heavy with bass and shot through with electric guitar. The stores along the strip had been looted, the streets strewn with food, splintered furniture. Spray-painted messages curled and overlapped on shop windows. Quit While You’re Ahead, one said.

We stopped at a burning TV to pool our provisions. I had tissues and half a bar of chocolate in my purse. Inez had crimson lipstick and a compass in hers. With the compass I tried to get a sense of our bearings, but the needle spun crazily. My husband snatched it away. “What are you doing?” he wanted to know.

Before my husband, I was married to a different man, and it was the same. I hate to say it, but it’s true. “We have to keep moving,” Inez said. I pictured our kitchen, teacups on the shelf. “We could go back,” I said, but my husband told me to shut up. “Shut up,” Inez mimicked. “You shut up,” I told her.

My husband set Inez on a couch cushion, and picked up a bat. He waded into the wreckage, then brought the bat down on an expensive-looking suitcase splayed open like a mouth. He smashed the suitcase again, putting his back into it. The tattoo on his neck, a bird with its wings spread, rippled when the tendons stood out. He turned to Inez, breathing hard. “We should go,” he said.

My husband walked away with Inez. His left hand still clutched the bat; his right was on her ass. I watched them disappear, then gazed at the ground near my feet: blankets, plates, ripped insulation. The music was closer now, loud. Vibrations rattled my legs through the asphalt.

Up ahead, I saw them. Thugs. Swarming in the darkened street. I wanted to touch the scars on their faces, to tell them I knew who they were. I wrenched an antenna from an abandoned car, and started slicing in every direction. Fires burned in the gutted storefronts. Sirens filled the air.

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Author Image

Anthony Tognazzini’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Gigantic, Crazyhorse, Forklift Ohio, and TriQuarterly. His fiction collection, I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These, was published by BOA Editions. He has received fellowships from Yaddo (2015) and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (2014). He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the poet Robin Beth Schaer, and their son Faro.

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