Johnny Keggler was sure of lots of things. That The Villa would win, for one. That a real man lived by a nickname – like his own, Keggs. Most of all he was sure he had raised a good son, raised him to be a strong, proud man. So what if Kay didn’t come over once a week or even once a month to visit his old man? He didn’t need to. The boy had his own life. Besides, Keggs was busy too, with his solitary battles, his drinks, his what-nots.
Sometimes it chafed, Kay’s absence. On days when he thought of Martha, which, granted, he didn’t do a lot. But even then he didn’t reach out to his son, didn’t confide in him that for a while now life felt like excess skin, something that didn’t quite fit and yet got carried along.
He was a man of many habits, Keggs, and there was hardly anything to suggest this day would be different from all the ones that had gone before. He got up, shivering in the cold deceit of morning. He dressed, always the same. A white t-shirt, faded blue jeans. Only in the depth of winter would he wear a sweater.
His apartment too felt roomy, an overgrown coat. He went to greet the flag he had stretched on the wall and that should have served to fill the space, not accentuate it as it somehow did. He had breakfast in the kitchen, amidst little toy soldiers that lay forgotten between crumbs of bread and cheddar. It was supposed to be the Battle of the Bulge. When Kay was 12 he liked to play with soldiers, fantasy ones. Warhammer something. Martha thought it was too messy, Keggs thought a boy shouldn’t play with dolls and definitely not paint them first. They had taken them away. Now with his breakfast battles he had somehow turned into his teenage son, while Kay, adult and austere, became a man he feared to recognize.
After breakfast, like clockwork, he went to the gym. He had taken up boxing when Martha got sick for the first time, ordering Kay along for company. Kay, 16 and surly by then, had quit after a few times, saying he had seen enough cuts and bruises to last him a lifetime. That bummed Keggs out, the kid was a natural, but he didn’t say anything. He knew too well his son meant him and he was tired of being the bad guy.
The morning wore down slowly. From upstairs the smells of curry seeped through. He had made a point of avoiding them, his new neighbours. He was sure they did the same with him. Still, they left their traces everywhere. There was no escaping that thick, sweaty scent.
Ever since they moved up here, drinks no longer served to forget. Instead, it got him to reminisce. Not about Martha. She had been his anchor, both steadying him and weighing him down, but other than that, there wasn’t much to tell. She cooked, she cleaned, and sometimes he had to set her straight. Of course, he thought about the beating and what had led up to it. Probably that smell set him off. But in the end he always went back further, deeper, to a face he had tried so hard to forget. As soon as it was there, he shot back like struck, panted, poured in another glass, and sank yet again into memory.
Today however, upstairs suddenly cranked up the noise. There were excited voices, music, and the doorbell ringing again and again. All a stark contrast to this life, the big empty. He knew he had to get out of there and do something before he too would turn into a cliché.
Afterwards none of them knew who had thought of it first. It just seemed like a thing that made sense, especially on a night like that, with booze and outrage flowing freely. Someone complained. Someone else had been called a nasty name. And they all knew of someone who. They shivered at the thought of something like that happening to them.
They became defiant, belligerent, until one of them, or maybe all of them, cried out: “We should fight back! Give them a taste of their own medicine!” and all of them, definitely all of them, even Kay, barked agreement and let’s show them something.
They spent the rest of the night and the better part of early morning deciding on a name. Several options were considered. They decided against Pink Posse!, The Pounce! and Fabulous Vengeance. In the end, in honour of yet another pair of closeted heroes, they dubbed themselves ‘The Gay Crusaders’. They envisioned themselves in wonderful suits bashing out against hatred, saving their own from villains and violence.
Normally, all of this should have dwindled come morning, but The Gay Crusade thing stuck somehow. Maybe it was because of the news reporting another one of them was assaulted. Maybe each of them remembered the dark road home. Either way, all of them felt they were on to something. So they got together again, with messed up hair and wrinkled clothes, to work out the details. There should be masks. There should be a covert signalling system. And they should have training, at least try to learn some highly effective fighting techniques. Something cool like Krav Maga. Or Wing T’sun. Or maybe something simple but attainable. That’s when they looked at Kay.
“You boxed, didn’t you?”
“Only a few times, with my dad in days of yore.” He remembered it only too well. His dad made him go, because that’s what he thought men did: beat each other up. But his dad, punching away at the bag with that grim look on his face, didn’t know about the shiny torsos, the muscles, the locker room. He shuddered. It had taken him too long to transcend all that. “Look guys, I hardly qualify…”
“Oh, come one, Kay, be a sport. Or we’ll ask your dad.”
If anything, Kay had worked hard to keep his friends from finding out about his dad and, worse, his dad from finding out about his friends. There’d be no end to it. His dad hated what he was.
“I’ll show you a few basic moves, alright? Just enough so we won’t get hurt. We’ll see after that.”
Often people shied away from him, as if his past somehow preceded him. Like at this club. As soon as he neared it, the crowd at the entrance disappeared back inside with a trail of butts and empty bottles, leaving him to his cigarette and his thoughts. It was a sour night, without a sign of spring. Out of the venue a slow thump drifted through the mist. He wondered what it would be like in there, sweaty body against sweaty body, thronging amidst unearthly lights.
“Howdy, stranger,” someone said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Keggs turned around, ready.
“Whoa, easy tiger,” said the other guy. He had a rugged face, with bright foreign eyes, but friendly on the whole. “Didn’t mean to put you on edge there, just thought you’d like a chat.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“OK. I’ll be on my merry way then.”
“No, wait!” Keggs flicked away his cigarette. “What’s… what’s going on in there?” He gestured, carelessly or so he hoped.
“It’s a club. People go there to dance. Men actually. With other men. Does that bother you?”
Keggs shivered, making it like he shrugged.
“You want to go in? I’m Tristen, by the way.” His grip was strong, promising.
Again, Keggs shrugged, sort of.
“Then what are you doing out here? Waiting for a bus to come?”
“No, I had this mate…”
Chris had been a mate, sure. There had been a tense eerie chord between them from the moment Keggs was pushed into the tiny cell and Chris slid of the bunk.
“We’ve got a live one,” he had purred. “What are you in for?”
“Battery?” the guard scoffed behind him. “More like attempted manslaughter. He beat that guy half to death. Better watch this one, Chris.”
Chris considered him, a sly smile creeping up like Keggs was exactly what he had been wanting for. “Oh, I will, gov’nor. I will.”
“You still there?” Tristen grinned at him, but in a warm and genuine kind of way, as if he knew Keggs, knew all about him. “So you’re looking for your mate?”
Chris had been in for fraud, of course. It made perfect sense. He was a man you’d follow into almost anything. But being locked up didn’t stop his scams, it intensified them. Chris had run elaborate schemes for cigarettes, booze and whatnot, but like any gambler he had pushed his luck further than it would go. There had been a courtyard skirmish, an accidental knife.
“No. He’s not here.”
Tristen rubbed his arms. Despite the cold he wore only a t-shirt, a black one that fitted him smoothly. “OK, Mystery Man, I’m getting cold out here. You want to go in or what?”
The good thing about the Gay Crusaders, they all agreed, was that they got to do it, had to do it, while clubbing, but it left Kay fidgeting in front of his mirror. He had to find something to wear, both fitting and loose enough, should he have to … engage. He wondered what it was like to hit someone. He briefly thought of asking his dad – he had the experience after all, men, women and, yes, children occasionally – but decided against it. His dad was best left alone with his hatred, the way he liked it.
In the end he chose his slim black corduroys and a simple t-shirt, black as well. With an outfit like that he wouldn’t give off the most joyous impression but it did carry a sense of mystery. He had quite an uneasy feeling when he put his gear – a cheap Zorro-mask he had found at a party shop and a cap – in the pockets of his jacket. Was he ready for this, should push come to shove?
He took a sharp breath. “You can do this. Kay, you can do this!” he told his reflection. With a few quick shadow moves at the mirror he left.
How and more importantly why he ended up in that back alley with Tristen was beyond him. All of a sudden they were just there, as if no time had passed in between. Tristen leaned back against the wall. Had they been inside? Frantically Keggs groped his mind for clues, but came up blank. The only hint was the gin mixer he held in his hand. That – and the increasingly wobbly feeling in his legs.
“The drink,” Keggler said. “You put something in my drink, didn’t you?”
“Which one?” Tristen said with a teasing smile.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Tristen eased back a little more against the wall. “Drop the angry-act, will you? You’re not fooling anyone.” He pulled Keggs towards him. “We both know why we’re here. At least I do.” He pulled Keggs even closer and then lips touched lips and there was a taste of spices. Instantly Keggs became both rigid and limp, like he was here and yet at the same time he was watching all of this happening to someone else.
Then, from the depths something stirred, something old. His mouth parted, his body relented. He grabbed the back of Tristen’s head, then dug his fingers in his shoulder blades. Tristen’s breath turned ragged, his own followed suit.
“Yeah,” Tristen whispered. “That’s it. That’s it.” And it was.
He pulled back and struck. It had been years since the beating, but Keggs still knew the drill. He didn’t hammer away in anger, but instead struck calmly, almost pre-meditated. Clean, dry pops. On the bulging lips. On the eagle-like nose. On the hands, that held on to something, a cell phone maybe. It had been like this before. Only then he had no idea why, not even when the guy cringed down at his feet. Maybe he had looked at him a certain way. Maybe he had smiled too inviting. Or maybe it was – like the judge thought -, because of his colour, his foreignness. Keggs didn’t care.
Just like with Tristen here. He needed no reason. It wasn’t because of his soft tongue, the ginger stubble that scratched when they… Keggs jerked up his knee against the other’s head. Something cracked. It felt good.
Something cracked. At first he thought it was his hand, but it turned out to be the other guy, who fell to the ground with a groan. He kicked him. In the ribs. And again. On the shins. His head. The arms went up, trying to protect the face. The guy turned around. He had a short flash of recognition, a longer one of pure, white anger. “You!” he spat. So it came down to this. He would put his boxing practice to good use. He would put every sneer, every joke, every not so playful punch to good use. He pulled the guy up and immediately struck him in the face. Blood spouted. Good. Finally, he would know how it felt. They both would. He lashed out again.
“Hold him!” he yelled. “Come on, hold him!”
“Keggs! That’s enough! Let’s go. Keggs!”
“Don’t call me that!”
Keggs? There was blood everywhere. Even breathing was painful. He heard more than saw. Hurried voices. Tristen scrambling up, thanking people. Footsteps. He tried to open his eyes and it took him a while to realize he had to make do with those slits of vision. He remembered the Pakistani’s face after he was done with him. It didn’t bode well for his own face.
Someone towered over him. He tried to focus, to make out a face. Even though he wore a mask, there was no mistaking the violent glitter in his eyes. Keggs knew it only too well. In a way, he was done for.
“Why?” he croaked. The shape just shrugged and turned.
Even though there was hardly anyone in the hospital, they made him wait for a long time as if they knew he was the sole cause of his present condition. Just to spite them he leafed through all the magazines with his bloody hands. At the end with Martha, he had sat in a similar waiting room, with the same magazines. Back then, he had lived in a daze of anger and disbelief. Now, finally, the smallness of life came crashing down on him.
The doctor was young and somewhat insecure. His hands shook when stitching. On the one hand Keggs wanted to tell him to man up, on the other that he was doing fine. In the end he said nothing, biting on his tongue to subdue the pain.
“Right. That ought to do it,” the doctor said, after what seemed hours. He inhaled, as if the worst part was yet to come. “Mr. Keggler, do you want me to call the police?”
“Don’t you want to report whoever did this to you?”
“Are you sure? Mr. Keggler, I really think…”
Keggs looked up to consider the doctor. The unfathomable dark eyes, the smooth skin, any hint of origin. His name sounded Bengali but he couldn’t quite make it out. That was how it was these days – muddled. Nevertheless, hating this man would be easy. All so easy.
“It’s OK, Doc. I don’t care. Really, I don’t.”
There was a cautious sun out when he left the hospital. Thin morning air, just like when Martha died or when he was released from jail with only a few bare memories of Chris’ embrace. All things he had thought to dispose of quickly, without realising they were never gone. Not really.
It was an hour for the city to wake and it still seemed a bit unreal, ungrounded. When he crossed the water, he chucked the pain meds the doctor had given him. He didn’t need them. In fact he welcomed the dull throbbing behind his eyes that told him Kay had a mean right hand, just like his dad.