y last year of school was a waste. I didn’t like my subjects or, for that matter, any of my teachers. I soon made a decision to stop studying.
My real life began after class. A group of us twelfth graders had taken to wandering the city alleyways around Sutherland Street. My friend Pete would look up and down the sandstone walls of the warehouses for the best spot to do his graffiti. The piece itself took him no more than a few seconds. Myself, Tony, Arino, or one of the other guys, would keep a look out while Pete pinned the card to the wall, sprayed colour in a steady sweep, leaving a floating shadow of someone’s face, friends he’d snapped at school, or parties; there were even a couple of his mother.
Only when Pete packed his gear away would he smile and want to talk. “One day we should live round here Leo,” he said to me one time. “Just imagine the freedom we’d have. We could do what the hell we wanted.” I looked around at all the busted windows, the buckled sheets of corrugated iron nailed up where the doors had once been, and further along where a row of decrepit printers and foundry workshops spewed out fumes and clattered non-stop. I laughed, and shouted back: “Sure let’s fucking do it.”
Sometimes a grim look would cross his face; he’d gesture for us to leave him alone, with his bag of spray cans and stencils. We used to wait for him a little further along, in this vacant lot, surrounded by cars and weeds, sitting on a concrete slab that had jacked away from the back wall. We smoked ciggies, talked once more about girls, or music, or what movies were on; conversations that would engross us for a few minutes then vanish like they’d never been said. Some of the guys would bring their girlfriends. Now and then, a couple would mosey on up McLean Alley, or around the cobbled walkway on Flanigan. I used to watch them go, wondering what they got up to around there, whether it was just kissing or something more.
This one time, it was during those shitty hot weeks before our final exams, we were hanging around the Café Zuni. There weren’t enough chairs, so most of us squeezed under this awning, going to our table every now and then to drink our coffee. Tony said that Pete was trying to score some weed. I didn’t hold out much hope, and suggested following the path by the river, mingling with the after work crowds, anything to stop me going home for a while.
Tony gave me that quizzical look of his.
“How puerile,” he said. He said that about anything he didn’t approve of.
When Pete finally appeared most of us had already left. Those that stayed had run out of things to say, were leaning back on the bonnets of cars, staring at the empty sky, or the slender shadows on the facades of buildings, swinging our legs and grinning like we were already ripped.
Pete leapt over the curb, stopped a short distance away. I noticed he had a swollen lip.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” He addressed us sweepingly, like those generals in war movies, without bothering to look at anyone.
“Sure. Where are we going?” I said.
“How the hell would I know?” He smiled and ran towards me, used my shoulder to vault into the middle of the laneway, now busy with people strolling in the late afternoon sun. This girl with straw-yellow hair started frowning at us.
“Don’t worry about money,” Pete said. “I’ve had a windfall.”
I knew he was lying, or exaggerating, but what did that matter?
He began to walk off. After a few steps he turned about and glared at us. “Are you fucking coming or what?”
Only me and Tony went over to him.
Pete elbowed me in the side. “Good. I didn’t want those fuckwits coming anyway.” He said it loud so everyone could hear.
I tried to protest, but Pete had already dashed behind Tony, was shoving him along, laughing. Arino and the other guys muttered something then picked up their bags and moved on.
You couldn’t call Pete pretentious, but even around the schoolyard he practised daily at cultivating a distinct appearance. Now he wore this scruffy t-shirt with “HELLBENT” blazoned across it and the nails on his left hand were painted green. Dark hair and eyebrows gave his blue eyes an unnerving prominence. His face, lean, softly tanned, handsome, had the added advantage of an easy smile. His body was long-limbed, cat-like. It swaggered through space with an airy infallibility.
It was a body unused to any kind of restraint.
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series