We are so pleased to present the first published story from Stefan Milne, “The Buddhist,” as this weekend’s fiction piece, and we think you’ll agree it’s an auspicious debut. The suburban kids in this story are at that stage of pushing and pulling on their youths, their upbringing, their sense of themselves. We can imagine them growing up into good men, as they come to terms with how much of themselves is pretended, how much is real. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
They had no jobs or schools, and homes were suspect. They’d been hanging around the skate park for awhile—I don’t know how long. These things don’t matter until a cop asks.
They were three guys. A scrappy one, with this peacock-like mohawk. A fat one, always flush and sweaty. And the other guy with the shaved head and sloppy tattoos and lean iron muscles. You imagined him weighing a thousand pounds, like he would break the concrete if he fell too hard. They had a kind of uniform—camo pants, suspenders, no shirts. They struck affectless leans on their old black pickup, blasted Slayer and Lamb of God from smashed windows. They mixed Sunny-D and Olde E brass monkeys on the hood of the truck among the rust. We rolled up, Donny and I, just after school, and they were already there. I let my car drift and hiss through the gravel before I swung it into a spot. The park’s graffiti consisted of a few stray scribbles and swirls.
The fat one leaned on the truck and dabbed at his cleavage with a motor-oil-spattered rag. He heaved breath. The other two were already riding. They were graceless and clunky, fell a lot, had scabs and gravel-flecked scrapes.
I said, “Look who’s here.”
“Whatever,” Donny said. He was a little guy, a frail and freckled redhead. “Room for everybody, and shit.”
Whatever we said, they were real punks. They had that filthy purity. All of us skaters thought that we were punks, renegades, whatever. We hopped fences and skated under No Skateboarding signs. We stuck stickers that said Go over the No. We smoked all the weed we could get our lips around. We smoked your cigarettes. We smoked those It’s a Boy! dollar cigars, inhaled, got green. We waxed up granite benches and skated them till little hunks fell off. We bled and laughed. We got pissed and stomped our boards. We ate hamburgers in front of gym windows, watched lumpy, bobbling moms shake their heads at us and secretly salivate.
But we knew what we were. We lived on cul-de-sacs, took out the trash when asked. We got cars with good safety ratings for birthdays. We ate dinner with our parents, made good grades. Donny cried when cops wrote him a ticket for skating a library ten set. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t fuck with him about it, either.
Donny and I hung our helmets on a bench in case of cops. This town was little and lazy, uncluttered, edged up against the foothills, so cops had nothing better to do than hassle us about not wearing helmets, or check I.D.s if we had cigarettes. I’d gotten good at flicking butts into the grass around the park, real nonchalant-like. I could flick mid-trick.
Marco and Stevie showed, two more skinny high school kids.
I warmed up, kickflipped the six set, nollied the hip, tried a back noseblunt on the quarterpipe, but messed that up. I won’t go into too much detail—you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Basically, I was good, top tier in town, and I felt sown in today, like my board was a long line of thought. I tried the back noseblunt a few more times, maybe three, pulled it clean. Usually at a park when somebody pulls something like a smooth back noseblunt, people bang their boards against the edge of the quarterpipes. Donny and Marco and Stevie all clattered. The metal guys stayed silent.
I rolled over to Donny, who’d been dicking around on the six stair.
He said, “Marco and Stevie are gonna run over to the library and get a screen from the sink. The screen in their pipe broke.”
“Nice. We should hotbox the Honey Bucket.”
The muscley guy in suspenders was staring at Donny from across the park. He shot a jet of chew from between his teeth.
We hotboxed the Honey Bucket. We did it in pairs. You can’t fit four guys in a Honey Bucket. Smoke sputtered from the vent on top.
We kept skating. I’m not sure the weed was real. I didn’t feel high. Maybe I just didn’t get enough. I kept catching the guy eyeing Donny.
I said, “Hey, Donny, that guy’s eye-fucking you.”
“Fuck you,” he said. Donny could never bite back properly.
“Yeah, you say that now but when the black pickup’s a rockin’ I won’t be a knockin’.”
“Dick,” he said, but he was looking. And the guy was looking back.
We were still at the six set when the guy rolled up. He smelled like sweat and liquor and old French fries. He had a big gap between his two front teeth. He shot more chew from it.
He looked at Donny and said, “I know what you been thinking about me.”
“I haven’t been thinking about you,” Donny said.
“I got that ESP shit.”
“Oh. Cool.” Donny ollied the stairs to get away.
I stayed put. I hadn’t thought of a trick to try and my heel was a bit bruised. I figured he’d go away.
The guy got off his board, not good enough to do anything with the stairs, and walked over to Donny.
“I know you been making fun of my suspenders in your mind,” the guy said. “I can read thoughts.”
“I wasn’t making fun of anything.” Donny walked back up the stairs and rolled over to where I was standing. The guy rode off.
Marco rolled over. He was lanky, had a swarm of black curls. He said, “That guy that was talking to you, Donny.”
“He’s the guy who ripped the bench out with his pickup.”
I glanced at the absence of bench.
“Me and Stevie and Trent, we were here skating and that guy, shit, he like got in the pickup and turned up the Pantera and came out a while later and pulled a chain from the back of his pickup and attached it to that thing on the front, , the bar, and he put the hook around the bench and just ripped the fucker out. We left cause we figured the cops would show.”
“Jesus,” Donny said.
“Shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” Marco said, “and Stevie was here alone a few weeks ago and that guy was skating around with a baby He got super pissed at Stevie for not getting out of the way when the guy was just riding around with a baby. A little baby.”
“Jesus,” I said. “The baby guy. I didn’t know it was that guy.”
We paused, pretended not to look at him, but I’m pretty sure we were all looking at him. I was.
“I’m so blazed,” Marco said.
“Yeah, I’m Cheeched,” Donny said.
“Who the fuck says Cheeched?” Marco said.
I wondered if they were really high or what.
The guy started toward us again. His friends were perched on the hood of the pickup, sipping brass monkeys. The pickup leaned under the fat guy. Marco skated off.
“What the fuck did I say about my suspenders?” the guy said.
“I’m not doing anything,” Donny said.
“You know, if I keep hearing your thoughts and your thoughts are talking shit and making fun of my suspenders, I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.” The guy got close, loomed over Donny.
“He wasn’t saying anything,” I said.
He turned to me. “I didn’t say he was saying anything. Fuck you. I’m not talking to you. I said he was thinking.” He turned back to Donny. “I’m a fucking Buddhist, man.”
“Oh. Cool,” Donny said.
“I’m a Buddhist, I wouldn’t hurt a fly, but if you keep on thinking bad shit about my suspenders, I’ll kill you.”
“I’m not thinking anything bad about your suspenders, I like your suspenders,” Donny said.
The guy rode off.
The 40 bottle hit Donny hard on the shoulder, made him stumble, and the guy was already bounding from his pickup, shouting, “You little bitch, what did I fucking say,” and stuff. I froze, gawked—I’d never been in a fight. Donny was rising, and the guy thwacked his fist into Donny’s side, just below the ribs, a stiff shot, and Donny went all the way down this time with a gasped groan. Kind of writhed.
“What did I fucking say?” the guy said.
Marco and Stevie were slouched, awestruck, like me, but they were all the way across the park, and the guys on the black pickup were laughing, the fat one rippling and red, and I knew that if I tried to help Donny, I would just get a beating because those other guys would jump in and there was no way we could take even two of those guys, but at the same time Donny was a friend and this guy was about to hit him again, but even if I called the cops, they wouldn’t save anybody—so I just stood there as the guy pulled Donny up by his t-shirt collar, pulled him up so they could taste each other’s breath.
And they stopped like that.
I felt like I should be moving, plowing into the guy, saving Donny. I’d never thought of myself as a coward. I broke the law daily.
The guy said, “I’m a fucking Buddhist, I don’t wanna do this.” He sounded truly upset.
Donny didn’t speak. He shook and tried to cower. But you can’t cower when you’re held on tiptoes.
And the guy was saying, “I don’t wanna do this, why’d you make me do this?” and the pickup revved angrily, and I had this urge to charge, but I couldn’t even suck a breath, so the guy hit Donny, a sloppy sound, and dropped him. The guys in the pickup said, “Let’s fucking go!” and the Buddhist guy ran over, and they said something like, “You kill him?” They spun their wheels, gravel rattling against the truck’s belly.
I knelt and held Donny’s head. Marco and Stevie rolled over.
“He’s not dead,” I said. We picked him up and laid him on a bench. He could’ve walked but we wouldn’t let him.
The cops came a bit later, and then an ambulance, even though I don’t think they really needed it. There was a lot of blood, but there’s always a lot of blood when your head’s involved. He had a broken nose and a bruised side, the sort that turns four colorst. Donny answered all the questions. I just stood there with Marco and Stevie, all of us a little smeary with blood. We nodded sometimes, gave our names, phone numbers, so on.
We stared at the blood and the cops and our shoes.
Donny didn’t miss any school. He had a small white cast like a piece of tape over his nose and a tilted gait, but he was okay. He had pockets of painkillers. The girls babied him, asked to see his bruise, asked if he could take off the cast. He liked it. They swooned. They whispered various things about bravery. What he told them I don’t know.
Then we’d be standing there at lunch or after school or something, and Donny’d be telling the story and when he’d get to the part where the guy hit him, Donny’d grin and hit my arm and stare at my eyes and go, “And this guy, he didn’t know what to do, he just stood there,” and I’d shrug and grin and say, “I thought you had him,” or some such bullshit, and everybody would laugh.