I know by the knife in my pocket that this is when I was in high school. I’m maybe seventeen here. Pocket full of scrounged change—stolen change—I’m out on the dark sidewalks of our crime-ridden neighborhood, seriously jonesing for a cigarette, walking down to Handi Mart before they close because the Save-X is already locked up for the night. The mercury streetlights buzz out their weak little puddles of ghostly light here and there, somehow only managing to make the dark spaces in between seem darker. Under the buzz of the streetlights a coal train rumbles past a couple of blocks down to my right, competing with the screeches of the switchyard a few blocks further off the other way. Otherwise it’s quiet, too cold for the bugs, too cold for people to be out on their porches with their glowing cigarettes and crumpling beer cans and boom boxes. They’re inside huddled around their flickering TVs instead, behind the few lighted windows that scatter randomly among the dark windows, the vacant windows, the broken-out windows, the burned-out holes that used to be windows. Used to been, as they’d say around here.
You stay alert to your surroundings here, especially after dark. Every third house is vacant, likely to have someone drinking or using or squatting or fucking in it. Every seventh or eighth house is either gutted, stripped of its copper, burned out, or a weedy vacant lot. Darkness rules between the little puddles of light, and there’s no shortage of assholes willing to pull some stupid shit for no reason other than that they’re fucked up or cranked up or fed up or just plain given up. Hope, like streetlights, is a rare commodity around here.
There’s a spot along this walk where one night I heard a noise behind me and looked around to see a car on the sidewalk a couple of houses up the hill behind me, engine off, lights off, coasting down towards me between the front yard retaining walls and the parked cars. No idea who it was or even what kind of car it was. As the four round high-beams lit up I sprinted up a driveway and into the pitch dark of someone’s back yard—watching the car stop at the foot of the driveway, waiting until I heard the engine start and drive off—then felt my way through some back yards until I could come out somewhere else.
I’m passing that spot when I see the cop car down the hill at the closed BP station on the corner, the one with the mechanic’s shop. It’s a little past the alley that I would usually use for a shortcut, pulled into the curb cut behind a late-‘60s VW Beetle that has the hood open. Its headlights and spotlight are pointed at the Bug’s rear engine, but the blue lights aren’t spinning, and there aren’t the usual three or four cars that tend to pile in for a call around here. As I come closer I hear the radio squawk, and I can see the cop standing there looking casual, talking to a girl in the light between the cars.
She doesn’t belong here. Especially at night. She belongs in a mall somewhere. She’s got this whole Molly Ringwald presence that just doesn’t fit in with the hoods and the hookers and the crankheads and the bikers, the fucked-up desperates who live around here. She may as well be wearing a target.
Thing is, there’s a part of me that identifies with her. The part of me that’s failing out of high school but knows he’ll go to college someday, maybe even be a professor, maybe a writer. The part of me that got moved here when he was fourteen, from the educated middle-class black neighborhood in DC where he had only recently discovered the freedoms of the Metro system and the Smithsonian, and got landed in this cesspit of racism, hatred, abuse, and despair—all because his dad decided to quit his job as “The Reverend” and take up with some woman he had met at some protest or peace workshop or some shit, leaving my mom high and dry to support me and my little brother on a temp-service nurse’s wages. No way she could afford to keep us in DC on that, not beyond the end of the school year when the church wanted their house back. Nowhere else to go, we ended up here in this town because it’s where that other woman lived, and my mom thought we should be close to my dad for some who-the-fuck-knows reason. That part of me identifies with her.
The part of me that had to learn that around here no teenager is dressed without a knife, or that a teenager who doesn’t smoke or get drunk is probably a narc and definitely shouldn’t be trusted and probably needs to have his ass kicked just on principle. That part of me identifies with her.
The part of me that had to learn to keep my mom’s decrepit Beetle running, because he’s the man of the house now and no way in hell she could afford to take it to an actual mechanic. So he’s had to learn to bleed the brakes and adjust the brakes, to pull the drums and replace the worn brake shoes, to change the fouled spark plugs and plug wires and the distributor cap and rotor, to set the gap on the points and adjust the timing, to change the fuel filter and clean the air filter, to replace and adjust the fan belt, to crawl up underneath in the itchy grass of the back yard, working totally blind, and adjust the valve-tappet clearance.
So there’s the part of me that identifies with her, and there’s the part of me that thinks just maybe I can offer some help. I pass my shortcut and walk down toward them.
Between their lights in the darkness and the noise of the cop car’s idling engine, they don’t notice me until I’m just a few feet away. The young cop jumps, startled and wary, his hand shifting toward his sidearm. The girl doesn’t react as if I’m a threat. Hell, I’ll take it.
“Hey guys,” I say (I haven’t mastered “y’all” yet). “Can I help?”
“Everything’s under control,” the cop says. Straight out of his training manual.
“You sure?” I say, speaking to her. “I know a little about Bugs.”
“Triple-A is on its way,” the cop says.
“I might be able to save you the trouble,” I say to her.
“That won’t be necessary,” the cop says. “Move along.”
“Sure,” she says, speaking at the same time. “If you want to, thanks!”
The cop glances at her, then back at me, looking annoyed and a little alarmed.
The girl steps back to clear a path to the engine compartment. The cop steps the other way so that he’s directly at my back when I squat down behind the engine.
“What happened?” I say, looking for anything obvious.
“It just quit,” she says.
“Sputtered and quit?” I say. “Or was it more like you shut the key off?”
“More like the key, I guess? It may have sputtered once, but I drifted it down here from up on the next block.”
“Got gas?” I say. We’re poor around here. Running out of gas is a common breakdown.
“Plenty of gas,” she says. I can see that there’s gas in the clear plastic fuel filter, and the fan belt’s intact, and it’s tight enough, and everything turns okay when I twist on the alternator pulley. There’s no smell of leaking gas—well, not beyond the normal smell of any old Beetle. The carburetor cable’s intact and the linkage turns like it’s supposed to. None of the obvious wires seems to have fallen off.
“Was it acting up at all before this?” I ask.
“No. It was running just fine.”
“Ever done this before?” I ask. “Just quit like this?”
“Not since I’ve had it,” she says.
“How long you had it?”
“A couple of years.”
Must be nice to be a teenager with her own convertible Beetle.
“The hell you doing ‘round here at night anyway?” Shit. There I go.
“Just off work down at General Sales,” she says, without missing a beat.
“Ah,” I say. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she says, her voice flat. I’m not totally sure she means it. General Sales is a cleaning-supply wholesaler just over the hill, down in the industrial zone along the tracks.
Flummoxed, I start tugging on wires. The ignition wire to the coil is secure. The fat spark-plug wires are all secure on top of the distributor, and down at the other end where they go through their separate holes in the sheet metal to the spark plugs. They’re even the good orange wires that my mom couldn’t afford. The coil wire’s secure in the distributor. Then I pull on the end where it goes up into the coil and I feel movement.
“Did you find it?” she says, sounding excited.
“Well, we won’t know until it starts,” I say. “But maybe.”
I tug a little harder on the wire and it pops loose, moisture seal and all. Not sure why Volkswagen thought it was a good idea to mount the coil with all the wires coming down out of the bottom where gravity can work ‘em loose, but I ain’t the engineer. Nothing I can do but deal with it.
I jam the wire back up into place, but it doesn’t snug up. I can feel it grinding, swimming, as I wriggle the wire.
“Yep,” I say. “I think this is your problem.”
“So I need a new one?” she says.
“I hope not.” I pull the wire back out, looking for pitting on the C-shaped copper barrel connector. The copper’s not pitted, so it hasn’t been arcing a lot. When the same thing happened to Mom’s bug I just spread that C-shape open a little with a screwdriver and it never happened again. I owe that trick to Mom’s spiral-bound copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, which may have been the best investment she ever made. The other part of its title is even better: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Compleat Idiot. That’s me. The compleat idiot.
I reach into my jeans pocket and I pull out the knife in question. This is the crappy old knife I had after my brother stole my favorite Buck knife. This one’s an old, rusty folding knife with a fake mother-of-pearl handle. It looks like a switchblade, but it’s not. Just a lock blade, with a weird old pin-style locking mechanism. The blade is covered in rust, and maybe half an inch of the tip is broken off. It’s an old piece of shit, but it will serve for a screwdriver here. I open the knife, insert the back of the blade into the gap on the C-clip, and twist it back and forth to spread the gap out a little, so the clip fits more tightly into the coil. When I reattach the wire it goes in with some resistance, and feels solid, like it should.
“Okay,” I say, looking up at her. “Let’s see if it’ll start for us.”
“This is so exciting!” she says, trotting around the driver’s side of the car.
I stand up and step back, folding the knife and slipping it back into my pocket, glancing at the cop’s oddly stoic expression.
“Ready?” she says from behind the wheel.
“Yeah,” I say. “Give it a shot!”
The starter growls over a couple of times and the engine splutters to life, with the old Beetle’s characteristic puff of blue smoke and the whistling exhaust. She gives a little whoop from inside as the pulleys spin and the fan belt vibrates, and as I close the flimsy louvered hood I feel the momentary glow of a successful troubleshoot. Okay, of victory. Hoodlum one, cop zero.
She is back around behind the car, with her leather purse in her hand.
“What do I owe you?” she says over the noise of the two engines.
“Owe me?” I say. “What?”
“Well you did just fix my car,” she says. “What do I owe you?”
“Um…” I say. “Got a cigarette?”
“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t smoke.”
“Ah well, then I guess we’re even.”
“What?!” she says. “No. Are you sure about that?”
If I asked for it, she’d probably give me enough to buy a carton.
“Nah,” I say. “Not gonna take your money.”
“Well then thank you,” she says, holding her hand out.
I shake her hand. “You’re welcome.”
She turns to the cop, “Can you radio in and cancel the Triple-A?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
She starts to turn toward the car, then swivels back, meeting my eye and gesturing at her purse. “You’re sure?” she says.
“I’m sure,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Thank you!” she says. Then, turning toward the cop, “Thank you both!”
She walks back around the car just as the stoplight for 13th turns yellow, and she manages to get her purse behind her seat, get buckled in, get the brake off, get the car in gear, pull out of the parking lot, and get through the intersection before her green light changes.
I listen to the engine as she drives off toward the lights of downtown. It sounds like a healthy Beetle—inasmuch as anything designed after a 1930s light-aircraft engine can sound healthy. After a couple of blocks she disappears down the slope, and the sound of her engine fades beneath the sound of the idling police car.
“Welp,” I say to the cop with a wave. “Have a good night.”
I’ve already turned and taken a couple of steps toward Handi Mart when he speaks.
“Stop Right There.”
My gut clenches. I won’t actually be diagnosed with the anxiety disorder for another couple of decades, but at this point I have spent my whole life with a domineering father, one who could turn evil at the drop of a hat. By the time I stop and turn around my bowels are already cramping.
“Sir?” I say. Fucking voice shaking. An octave too high.
“Come back here,” he says. His hand is resting on his sidearm.
I close the ten or fifteen feet between us, watching his face, keeping my hands visible.
“Let me see that knife,” he says.
I pull the folded knife out of my pocket and hand it to him, hinged end toward me.
He turns it over in his hands. “This is an illegal switchblade,” he says.
“No sir,” I say. “It’s just an old lock blade.”
He swings the rusty blade until it locks open, then he fiddles around with it, trying to figure out how to unlock it.
Not thinking, I reach out. “Here, let me…”
He recoils, snatching the open knife away from my hand.
“Sorry,” I say, pulling my hand back.
He looks at the open knife, then gives me that suspicious-cop glare.
“Let’s see some I.D.,” he says.
He watches my hand carefully as I reach for my wallet, so I pull it out between my thumb and one finger, holding the other fingers open, if a bit shaky, so he can see that there’s nothing else in my hand. I slip out my learner’s permit and hand it to him.
Oh wait. Learner’s permit. I’m not seventeen here, I’m still sixteen. By the time I’m seventeen I’ll have my license.
He looks at the unlaminated card with its typewritten information and no photo.
“Got anything else?” he says.
I pull out my high-school ID, basically a business card with a blank where they had us write our own names.
He looks at the card, then glares back up at me. “No photo I.D.?”
I have to pee. “No sir.”
He continues to glare at me.
“I’m sorry sir, that’s all they give us.”
He switches the knife and both I.D. cards into his left hand and reaches into his pocket for his flip book and pen. I wait as he flips to a blank page and starts writing the information into his book.
“Is this address correct?” he says.
He writes into his pad. Then, “Date of birth?”
It’s right there on the learner’s permit, but I rattle it off with well-rehearsed speed because I have this feeling he’s testing me.
He nods and writes in his pad for a second. “Social Security?”
It’s also on the card. It’s my license number. But I rattle it off as well.
I give him our seven-digit phone number. He writes it down.
“Now,” he says, glaring directly at me again. “If I call this number your parents are going to answer?”
“Uh, no sir,” I say. “It’s just my mom, and she works second shift.”
He glares at me.
“My roommate might answer,” I say, hesitantly.
“Your roommate,” he says.
“Yes sir,” I say.
He glares at me.
“Well, our boarder—um, housemate,” I say. “He—uh—rents a room from us.”
The cop continues to eye me suspiciously. Later I’ll wonder if it’s some kind of interrogation technique.
“Wait here,” he says.
I stand in the lights of the police car, spotlight still pointed at my crotch, while he walks around and sits down in his driver’s seat. He picks up the radio mic and mumbles into it. I can almost make out the radio side of the conversation, mumbling some coded numbers and then a “Stand by.”
I stand there with visions of mugshots and fingerprints playing out in my head. Thinking about having to call my mom after she gets home around midnight. Thinking about spending the night out at Bonsack (every teenager around here knows where juvie is), because ain’t no way she could get bail money before tomorrow. If she could get it at all.
The stoplight cycles to itself, arbitrarily stopping the occasional car that comes past. At one point three cars come by all together. Each of the drivers looks over at us—at me—standing there in my torn jeans, my mismatched denim jacket, stringy long hair blowing around in the chilly breeze and catching in the fake fleece of my jacket collar. Looking every part the local hoodlum they would expect to be detained by the police in this neighborhood. Hands jammed in my pockets, starting to shiver because I was dressed for walking, not for standing around, and I was planning to be back home by now. And I really need to pee. And I could seriously use a fucking smoke. A relief valve pops off down at the little tar and asphalt plant by the tracks. Its sudden gurgling “PSSSH!” isn’t so startling from three blocks away next to an idling engine, but when it popped off one night when I was right next to it walking our dog, I just about pissed my pants. Poor dog shook for an hour.
The cop sits in his driver’s seat, fiddling with the knife in his task light. He eventually figures out how to unlock it, and folds it shut.
Another coal train whistles its discordant air horns down where the tracks cut off the corner of 18th and Cleveland, right behind the tar plant and General Sales where the girl in the bug works. I listen to its engines rumble around the curve of the river, almost making a semicircle around where I’m standing. Waiting. For a while I can hear the engines from one direction and the scritching wheels from all the way around to the opposite direction.
The mumbling radio finally says something that catches his attention. He mumbles a response into the mic and gets back up out of the car.
He silently hands me my learner’s permit and high school I.D. I slip them into the empty cigarette pocket on my jacket. The wallet can wait.
He doesn’t hand me the knife. He stands there holding it, looking at it.
“What were you planning on doing with this knife?” he says.
“I dunno,” I say. “Maybe fix a girl’s car?”
He glares up at me. “You getting smart with me, boy?”
“No sir,” I say. “It’s just—”
He waits. “Just what?”
“It’s—just a knife, sir,” I say. “Just a—tool.”
It’s just part of the uniform in this neighborhood. Just what every teenager is expected to possess. Just one little accessory that says no I don’t think I’m better than you. No I’m not a narc. No I’m not going to rat you out to The Man. And yes, I will defend myself with a sharp object if you make it necessary.
Decades later, when I’ve tried to write this half a dozen times, I’ll think to ask him if he wanders around this neighborhood at night without his sidearm.
“Well,” he says. “I know who you are and I know where you live, and I know you’ve got this. So I’d better not hear about any trouble.”
He hands me the folded knife.
“There won’t be any trouble, sir,” I say, dropping it back into my pocket.
“If there is, you’re the first person I’m looking for,” he says.
It will also be decades before I think to mention that everyone in this neighborhood has a pocket knife. The teenage boys, the teenage girls, the grade-school kids, the dealers, the thieves, the bikers, the dads, the moms, the church goers—the little old grannies—everyone.
He doesn’t dismiss me. I wait. I’m not turning my back on an agitated cop.
“May I go now?” I finally ask.
He makes me wait a few more seconds. Then says, “Get out of here.”
I turn and start toward Handi Mart, hoping they haven’t closed yet, but within a few steps I can see that they’ve already turned their lights off. I’ll have to walk another mile, over the tracks and the river, to the all-night Citgo that’s in a safer neighborhood, that’s not certain to get robbed if it stays open, that doesn’t need the metal security grating over the windows and the sawed-off twelve-gauge under the counter. The one that charges fifteen cents more than I have in my pocket for a pack of smokes.
The cop drives past me in the same direction, well over the speed limit, his taillights disappearing around the curve and onto the bridge before I can walk the length of one parking lot. It’ll take me almost half an hour to walk to that Citgo. He’ll be there in three minutes.
I’m walking back out from the dumpster behind the darkened Handi Mart, my bladder feeling a little better, when I see the tow truck coming toward me. It’s moving slowly, the driver consulting a clipboard and peering ahead, scanning the deserted lots, hand on top of the wheel with a delicious-looking cigarette glowing between his knuckles. As he passes I see the oval AAA emblem on the truck’s side, its reflective background glowing in the ghostly streetlights.
The Story of the Story: This incident stayed with me for a couple decades before I tried to write about it, and getting to what’s on the page here took a couple decades more. I had to do it all the wrong ways first. All the wrong narrative voices. All the wrong pacing. A bunch of “atmosphere building” that had nothing to do with the incident itself. Second person imperative, for crying out loud. If you noticed “Decades later, when I’ve tried to write this half a dozen times […],” that’s not hyperbole. It wasn’t until I could cut away all that other stuff and put myself all the way back in the scene—hear the trains, smell that engine, feel the chill of the night air and the grit on my fingers, taste the anxiety in my mouth—that I could finally find the details to write what’s on the page here. I was surprised at how much it hurt to go back there, but turning it into a story proved cathartic in the end.
Jay Parr (he/they) lives with his partner and child in North Carolina, where he’s an alumnus of UNCG’s MFA in creative writing and a lecturer in their nontraditional humanities program. He is honored to have work published or forthcoming in Identity Theory, Bullshit Lit, Roi Fainéant, Five Minutes, Anti-Heroin Chic, Dead Skunk, Discretionary Love, Streetcake, and Variant Lit.
“The Knife” was first published in Variant Literature Journal #3 (Spring 2020) and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
Header photo via Unsplash.