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--- B R E N D A N   C O N N E L L

There I was, down next to the vent; down the steps and under the grate, trying to get some shut-eye. The vent was roaring and puffing out warmth and I was curled up there, my face buried in the collar of my jacket. I was in a bath of tomatoes and sausages, then talking with a bluebird, then running, my legs like rubber bands, but I couldn't get away from the masks and they kept following me. The rain was on and I opened my eyes.

Through the grate above I could see the clear sky of stars, the upside down of his spread legs and the long white finger spraying on me. It was over before I fully realized what that was doing and I felt the soak and sticky degradation, could smell my social level.

Oh Jesus, I cried out, and him up there laughing, crow-like, against the night, and that blonde hair glowing like just ripe hay.

Crawling up out of there I kept on saying our saviors name in vain, coupling it with the other's - Mark Yoko, I was saying, Mark Yoko. But the more I spoke my suffering, the more comedy he saw in it, until God help me if I wasn't laughing myself, a kind of laughter mixed with tears.

He talked about how bad the smell was and I took off my wool cap and kind of shook it and wrung it out, thinking, They call me Throbbing Knob, they call me Throbbing Knob. And knowing that when a guy is let drop so low, there's not much use or purpose in him getting sparked up with pride, because it wasn't like what he did to me I wasn't liable to do to myself.

He had some beers in his pockets and told me he would let me drink one to make up for what he had done. I would have preferred it if he had a few burritos in his pockets, because that was a Monday and the Sally hadn't served; is all I'd eaten was a fair sized chunk of government cheese.

But we sat down in the hedged-in lawn of the Court House, or whatever kind of public building it was, and he handed me one of those black beers that he was always drinking, the neck all frothy white with foam. I just sipped and nursed it and could feel it making its way through the cheese in my stomach, up into my forehead.

Meanwhile he had twisted up a bomber and lit it, the lick of flame mirroring in his eyes and then snapped up by the night. I smelled the aroma, as if I were back in Texas on the hog farm, scooping up those leavings. It was all whiting around him and rising in the air towards the dots in the sky and Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, and other forms of life for all I knew. He just passed in on to me, his face all red and him laughing crazy like, the way he did.

The burning was in my chest and running around and out my throat and I could hear, like it was coming from a cheap pocket radio, that laughter, it turning into a watery version of him as I opened my eyes. So I cussed and cussed, happy as hell and not caring in the least about the little damp I could still feel around the neck of my sweater. It was like the world had quieted down and was suddenly mine and the black beer was working at taking away the thirst and the sky was winking away like a casino, a downright gaming palace.

I just sat there on the grass Indian style, not too sorry to be away from the warm air under the grate, and he was walking around and talking, saying things I couldn't quite follow but sounded good the way they stretched out over to me. Then he's got his pocketknife out and has cut away a sort of spindly branch from one of the trees that was weeping, and he goes about stripping the thing down, making a regular switch out of it.

When he got done he started switching at plants and flicked the tops and leaves slick off of them. He ripped and tagged them all over, his teeth white and showing through that smile he had like a shark's. The vegetables of the trees and shrubs flew and filled the air and I heard the switch cutting and whistling around. He started talking Satan like and then he's switching at the palm of his own hand, laughing and wincing at the pain.

Is all I did was sit there quiet, watching the streaks the switch branch made in the air and feeling a sort of reaction in my stomach, picturing that hunk of yellow cheese floating around like an island in the black beer.

That's when I realized that his two eyes were set on me, and I felt like when I was a kid and had arrested my foot right over a long rattler. There it sat in the middle of the path, my foot hanging over it and my bottom lip shaking around. I simply backed off, slow as could be; but this time he had me locked in his stare and I said, Mark, really pleading like, because there was something in me that knew.

Rob the Throbbing Knob, he laughed, Rob the Throbbing Knob. Then, flicking swish through the air it came against the back of my hand, the empty bottle dropped out and it was stinging real bad. I told him to let me alone, but to his ears it must have sounded like I wanted more, and the sucker started furying at me, that big white smiling face dancing around behind the whipping like it had nothing to do with a human being or body. Rob the Throbbing Knob, I'm hearing through my pain, Rob the Throbbing Knob.

I was on my hands and crawled across the grass, the switch ringing against my back and a whimpering coming from my mouth like from a dog's. Come on guy, I heard myself say, the sound quivering and weak, fear climbing around in me.

And then he got on my back and tried to ride me like a horse, saying, Gee-up Rob, gee-up, and he swatted my rear end and snapped that thing around my ears. I could feel my eyes wet and burning and I bucked, collapsed and rolled over. He loomed there, lashing like hell, against my cheeks and forehead and all over. I screamed out for help, but I guess no one heard me or cared, and I felt the air going quicker than I could get it in and then the hiccups coming, mixed with the taste of beer and cheese.

The switch must have broke on me after a while - Everything was still flying in my head, but it was all quiet around. He was a little bit away from me, smoking a cigarette, the smile gone from his face and his eyes sort of cold and far off.

He said, You ok buddy, and I didn't answer, just got up and walked.

He was right next to me the whole time, talking and talking like he was a better friend than I had ever had, which might have been true, because Rob was lonely guy, he was a boy without a roof over his head.

When we got to the 7-11 he went in. The phone was there outside, and I dialed the number, it repeating in my head as the only number I could have dialed, it stamped on the phone as the number I was supposed to dial. So when he came out I told him what I had done and said that he better go because they were coming. But there was that smile again, the sound of his joy spilling out of it and stabbing at me; and he must have thought me incapable or a liar, because he just lit up a stogie and even gave me one, which I parked behind my ear.

It must not have been five minutes before they came. Scared and sorry as I felt, I walked right up to the car, the lights making me squint, and started talking, telling them, how it was me who called, how Rob was the victim. He beat me up, I told them, he beat me up.

I figured he would have been gone as soon as they pulled up, but looking over, he was right there next to me, drawing on his cigarette as calm as could be, like the whole thing was not about him or his concern. One of them held a little note pad in his hand and wrote down what I said I guess, jotting the pen slow and hard over the paper like he was carving out the letters.

All the while Mark stood quiet, not saying a word, until he was asked by one of the men if he attacked me. Did you beat him with a stick, they asked.

Mark Yoko stepped on the butt of his cigarette and said that me and him were just rough housing around and that I took it the wrong way. The way he talked I thought that maybe I was wrong, and taking it upside down, and he was the best friend I ever had after all.

Did you touch him, the officer said. Is all I want to know is if you touched him.

I might have poked him but - But I guess that was all it took, all they were waiting to hear, because then they asked me if I wanted to press charges and my head started going up and down like a sinker on a nibble. Those silver cuffs were off the man's belt and clinking around Mark Yoko's wrists, locking his hands and arms behind his back and there was all that talk about rights and remaining silent and everything you ever say held against you.

I should have kept quiet and knew it even while I did it, while I spilled the beans. I suppose I just thought that adding rat to what people thought of me wouldn't much matter, the scales already tipping so far against me. His face looked too calm and not really caring. I thought of all he had done without my provoking, and knew like it was a solid thing that my charging of assault would not make a run under the bridge, would not be so easy as water. They seated him in the back of the car and he sat still like he was made of ice, not blinking or even turning his head towards me.

I watched as the car pulled out of the parking lot and drove away, the back of his head of blond hair showing through the rear window. I wondered what was passing around under that yellow hair and started scratching my own, and felt my nails fill up and fingers run against some mats. That was when I felt the stogie stuck behind my ear and put it between my lips, thinking, Rob the Throbbing Knob, and knowing nothing but the sensation of the black sky as my roof.

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