We stare at the mound of record sleeves—me, Wave, and Darcy—piled high on the lawn, across the street from the courthouse: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth—someone has even thrown in Genesis and Pat Benatar for some reason—and I remember the filmstrip from Mr. Dornan’s history class, the one with the footage of Nazis burning all those books they’d deemed un-German.
I remember Mr. Dornan, who’d served two tours in Vietnam, telling us this was what separated America from the Communists. And here’s Mr. Dornan, now flipping his daughter’s Cinderella and Mötley Crüe records onto the pile like playing cards. Stephanie Dornan begs him to stop, and mascara inks down her cheeks as her father tosses the records one by one with dramatic effect.
Wave and Darcy cover their mouths and snicker as Stephanie collapses tearfully onto the lawn. Mr. Dornan glares at them—and he’s right to do so, at least right now. He’s never liked Wave or Darcy, and they didn’t like him much either. He once even tried to have Darcy expelled for wearing her “Holiday in Cambodia” T-shirt to school, telling her Cambodia was no holiday, that maybe she should try talking to people who’d sacrificed their youth for the privilege of getting spit on by people like her. None of this makes any sense—I guess it makes sense in a sick, twisted sort of way, but things shouldn’t make sense in that way. They just shouldn’t.
Then Mr. Dornan looks at me, and I turn away. Back when Mr. Dornan was Coach Dornan, and I was the 145-pounder on his wrestling team, we’d gotten along well enough, but he’d gone one “gook” too far, and no amount of apologies, no amount of I wasn’t talking about you’s could put us back together again. I’d told him “gook” was short for Hanguk, which means Korea, so he actually was talking about me. And then Coach Dornan tried to assure me he was only talking about the VC sappers that had tried to kill him and his friends, the ones who’d taken his brother in ’71. And I told him I didn’t care about his brother, but I didn’t mean it—I didn’t not care about his brother—and that was that. He did ask me to not burn this bridge, but how could either of us go back at that point?
Mrs. Dornan helps Stephanie to her feet, reaches out to wipe away the tears. But Stephanie pulls away, runs off, the fringes of her leather jacket flopping with each stride. Her records slide off the pile and onto the grass. Mr. Dornan tries to push them back onto the pile with his feet, but they keep sliding back. A cowboy in a blue, short-sleeved shirt and red tie picks up Stephanie’s record sleeves and tosses them back into the pile, douses them with lighter fluid until they stick. Mr. Dornan watches Stephanie run into the arms of her denim-clad heavy metal friends. He shakes his head. Darcy hits my shoulder with the back of her hand.
Jesus Christ, she says. You’re like a puppy dog. Let it go. You’re totally not her type.
Pastor Mike hugs a megaphone to his fat chest while speaking to the reporter from Channel 7 News. The place is crawling with reporters. Kurt Loder has even shown up with an MTV News crew, which is why Darcy’s wearing her “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” T-shirt—it was important to her that MTV knew we weren’t all small-town Bible-thumpers, that some of us actually listened to real music. The Bible-thumpers mill about—most of them out-of-towners—and Wave takes a swig of stolen Amaretto from a flask and then shoves it back into his jacket.
Six days ago, Hiro Nishihara tried to hang himself in his basement. It was on a Monday. When Mr. Simon broke the news during precalculus, everyone looked at me, and I knew it was because I was the only other Oriental dude in the class. The Fang sisters were there too, but no one associated them with the likes of me or Hiro because they were on Prom Committee, and Student Council, and fogged up rear windows at the drive-in. Hiro’s a Japanese metalhead, and I’m a Korean kid who wishes he was David Gahan, and in this stupid hick town, being a Korean kid who likes Depeche Mode is like having a Kick Me sign stitched on the back of every shirt. The way they all looked at me in class that day—even Doris Fang, who shook her head and then turned away, as if to remind me she was nothing like me—kind of made me miss the protection my letterman’s jacket used to provide.
According to the metal kids, Hiro had looped a bedsheet over the wooden beam in his basement and tied it around his neck. A Cleansing Fire by Paladin, his favorite album from his favorite band, was blaring from the woodgrain hi-fi he’d gotten on his eleventh birthday. He and I used to spend a lot of time in that basement way back when—before Hiro became a metalhead and before I became whatever I became—playing D&D. We had no other friends, so he was both Dungeon Master and Magic-User, and I played the Fighter and Thief characters.
Sometimes, due to the exhaustion of playing a long campaign wearing all those hats, we’d ride our bikes to the bowling alley and hide in the arcade, hoping the bigger kids wouldn’t notice us. That was five years ago—it all seemed so much simpler then. It’s silly for me to say that—that life was simpler then. Shit, I’m only seventeen years old—how complicated is my life, really?
I always tell myself the past only seems simpler because I’ve had time to process it. The only thing I can do right now is react, which only makes the future that much scarier. But as unsure as I am of the present, as much as I dread the future, thinking of the past still fills me with this sense of sadness I can’t quite wrap my head around. The closest I come is to call it homesickness, and even that doesn’t seem right. The only thing that makes me feel better is to look back on those days and tell myself, Man, life seemed so much simpler back then, as if I somehow know better now.
A group of middle-aged women come forward, each holding a stack of records against their chests. Every time one of them tosses records onto the pile, the others cross themselves and gaze at the sky as if they’re offering those Ozzy and Dokken records to God himself.
Hiro’s father came over the night after he’d tried to hang himself. I sat on the stairs and listened to Dr. Nishihara, the town dentist, tell my dad how he’d come home because some little kid puked all over his shoes and he needed to change, how he’d heard music blaring from the basement and was ready to kill Hiro for cutting school. He broke down in tears four times and I hated myself for eavesdropping.
Word got around Hiro was listening to Paladin when he tried to hang himself, so Pastor Mike called the other churches in the area and asked them to help stage a protest against what he’d always called the Devil’s music, asking them to bring every heavy metal record they could get their hands on so they could stage a burning. It made headlines all over the country, which is why Kurt Loder is here. Eoin Brannigan, the lead singer of Paladin even went on Nightline, telling Ted Koppel his music was a celebration of life, not death, not evil. I felt sorry for Brannigan with his ponytail, and dark glasses, and crooked tie. I hear Pastor Mike might even run for Congress because of all this, as if anyone would vote for that hypocrite. Hiro is now at the hospital, lying in a coma, and no matter how many times my parents yell at me, I can’t bring myself to go and see him.
I do feel bad about ditching Hiro, but it wasn’t like he didn’t play a part in all of this. At the beginning of junior high, I’d asked him to join the wrestling team with me, so we could stop getting picked on. It would’ve been perfect, and he would’ve finally fit in—the team actually needed a 103-pounder—but he said something about jocks being dumb and all sorts of other crap that, honestly, turned out to be true. But I did try.
People eventually stopped calling me Chink by the beginning of eighth grade—well some of them anyway—and Hiro slowly began to hang out with Bryan Mayfield, and Stephanie Dornan, and the other metal kids, growing his hair out, wearing ripped jeans, smoking on the other side of the parking lot. He’d even begun playing bass, he and Bryan starting a band called Balrog, which my dumb jock buddies called Ballrub even though I’d pull them aside and ask them to knock it off every time they did it. Hiro would stare at me and just shake his head, the iron-on patch across the back of his jacket, featuring Paladin’s Undead Knight mascot, growing smaller and smaller as he walked away from me and the snickering dicks I used to hang out with.
Wave takes another gulp of Amaretto, and Darcy asks if we thought Kurt Loder might want to interview us, and I tell her I don’t know. Pastor Mike talks to an old lady on a walker. She points over at the metalheads who’ve come down to heckle them, and she and Pastor Mike shake their heads. Bryan Mayfield—lead singer of Balrog, aka Ballrub—asks the old lady what she’s pointing at, tells her and Pastor Mike they should be ashamed of themselves, that Hiro was his friend, and they should have the fucking decency not to use him for their stupid cause. An out-of-towner tells Bryan to watch his mouth, and then Bryan tells him to fuck off, and the out-of-towner calls Bryan a piece of white trash.
I haven’t thought it until now, but for the most part, the metal kids actually were white trash. Other than Hiro and Stephanie, most of these kids literally lived on the other side of the tracks, where the old shoe factory stood, abandoned since I was in preschool. Pastor Mike walks around shaking hands and hugging the out-of-towners. He stands and laughs and slaps their backs like this is all some game. Maybe this is all some game. Maybe he doesn’t believe any of the crap he’s saying. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he didn’t believe.
Three weeks ago, Wave, Darcy, and I piled into Wave’s Granada and drove into the city to buy records and goof around. We’d stopped at a gas station to fill up for the drive home, and Darcy went inside to get a Pepsi and pay for the gas. She ran out almost immediately and told us to hide in the car. She told us to keep our heads down, but Wave decided to take a look.
Hi, Pastor Mike, he shouted.
He squinted over in our direction and then began walking toward the Granada, holding a brown paper bag.
David, he said, is that you?
It’s me, Wave said.
Who’s that in there with you? Hiya, Darcy. Hello, Wesley.
Hi, Pastor Mike.
Just getting some gas, he said. And a few essentials for the drive home. You know, junk food and what have you. Don’t tell the Missus you saw this.
We all laughed—Darcy laughed harder than we did—and told him his secret was safe with us. It wasn’t until he drove away that Darcy told us she’d run out because she’d seen him at the counter buying porno mags.
Actual porno mags, she’d said. The nasty stuff like Hustler, and Cheri, and some other one I couldn’t see—the same dirty shit my dad reads.
Mrs. Clay, my seventh-grade home ec teacher, had done some modeling and a few commercials in LA before getting married and moving to our town. Everyone liked her because she was cool and pretty and kind. She’d always made a big deal over me being the only guy in her class, even joked I was only here for the girls—truth was, I was in her class because I’d rather be dead than take fucking Wood Shop, where guys like me got paddled with 2x4s until Mr. Agostini shook his left hand in your face, showing the stumps that used to be an index and middle finger, as a reminder of the cost of horseplay. She was the only teacher to ever come out and defend me when kids called me Chink—it actually made her angry I never fought back. She was the reason I’d joined the wrestling team in seventh grade. She made me do it, told me I needed to get out of my comfort zone.
At the beginning of sophomore year, it had come out that she’d posed nude in a few girlie mags when she was in college, and a good chunk of the town turned against her. Pastor Mike and his wife led the charge—reminding people of all the young girls in her home ec class, how she was the worst possible role model they could have. I used to see her crying in her car when I walked my sister to school.
After spring break, Mrs. Clay announced she was pregnant and would be leaving at the end of the year.
The entire drive back to the city, while Wave and Darcy laughed about what a perv Pastor Mike was, I sat in the back seat and thought about the time I went to say goodbye to Mrs. Clay, how she’d cried at how thoughtful I was and blamed it on the pregnancy, how her husband had smoked on the porch the entire time I was there, how self-conscious I became when Stephanie Dornan showed up halfway through my visit because everything I said had echoed through the empty house and out the screen door.
Remember that time we caught Pastor Mike with the porno mags? I asked.
It’s weird, Darcy said, but what I remember was him lecturing us for going to Tower Records. I don’t even think about the porno mags.
So I see you kids went to Tower Records. Duhhh, Wave said in his best Pastor Mike voice.
Did you guys know, Darcy said in her best Pastor Mike, that rock and roll is a gateway into Satanism. Nonono—Duhhh—you can laugh all you want but it’s a known fact.
Wave and Darcy laugh, carrying on with their dueling Pastor Mike impersonations, impersonating him in that mocking baritone, punctuating sentences with Duhhh because the stuff he was saying was so fucking hilarious as opposed to horrifyingly stupid. Stephanie stumbles through the crowd of metal kids, still crying, and falls into the arms of Heather Campbell, the only girl I’d ever fooled around with—mostly because she was drunk, and I had cigarettes. I think Heather likes me, and I like her too, but it bothers me that we don’t even have the same taste in music. I don’t know why that matters—maybe it doesn’t—but I tell myself it does. Besides, she’s practically been with half the school, anyway. Heather wipes Stephanie’s tears away, kisses her on the forehead, tells her she’s sorry about the records, and Stephanie lays her cheek on Heather’s shoulder. Heather looks over at me and shakes her head, and all I can do is shrug.
AC/DC stands for Antichrist/Devil Child, Wave says. I can’t believe he actually said that. Like any of us listens to fucking AC/DC.
Don’t forget W.A.S.P., Darcy says. We Are Satan’s People. Duhhh!
Why do they do this? I ask. I mean, they’re trying way too hard.
Dude, they’ve been doing this for years, Wave says. When my brother was listening to KISS way back when, my aunt told my mom it stood for Knights In Satan’s Service. It was bullshit, but my mom ended up throwing out 8-tracks, puzzles, comics, dolls—all of it. These people are idiots, man. And yes, I include my mom in all of this.
At least your mom’s not here, Darcy says.
Well, Wave says, she’s here in spirit. Speaking of spirit—
He uncaps the flask and takes another swig of Amaretto. Mr. Dornan storms over, grabs Stephanie by the elbow, tries to pull her out of Heather’s arms. One of the metal kids tells him to leave her alone. I don’t know his name, but I know the jocks call him Hair Bear because his hair is big and frizzy like that stupid cartoon—and because they’re assholes. Mr. Dornan shoves his finger into Hair Bear’s chest, probably gave him the same speech on respect he always gave us.
An out-of-towner puts his arm around Mr. Dornan’s shoulder and walks him away, and Stephanie tells her father she’s never coming home. As they walk past us, the out-of-towner tells Mr. Dornan not to worry, that they’re about to put these punks in their place, and then Stephanie tells the out-of-towner to shove it up his wife’s ass, and I’m not sure what he’s exactly supposed to shove up his wife’s ass, but this infuriates the out-of-towner, and Mr. Dornan has to restrain him, apologizing for what she said. The out-of-towner storms off, and Stephanie tells him he’d better walk away, and calls him a dick-sucking faggot, and Heather tries to restrain Stephanie—who drunkenly slumps onto the grass like a child who refuses to be dragged off to bath time.
Jesus Christ, Darcy says. What a bitch.
Stephanie curls up and cries, while Mr. Dornan keeps his wife from running to her, and I look at her on the ground, and then at Darcy, who rolls her eyes because we only see what we want to see.
The night before Mrs. Clay moved, she asked me to be a gentleman and walk Stephanie home. We got to the porch, where she asked Mr. Clay for a cigarette. After asking her whether she was old enough to have one, he finally said he didn’t give a damn anymore, that he was quitting anyway, and gave her the whole pack. We walked down the driveway, and she asked me if I wanted one. I asked her if she was afraid people were going to see her, and she asked me if I was afraid of being seen with a girl who’s smoking, and I shook my head.
My dad likes you, she said. He says you’re a winner. He thinks you can win State by senior year.
Really? What do you think?
Stephanie lit a cigarette, and blew smoke in my face, and I winced and wondered what I’d ever done to deserve that. Now, I’m sure it had more to do with her dad than it did with me but back then, I still feel it was totally uncalled for. We walked past two houses before she stopped again.
You know, she said, what you did to Hiro was messed up.
What did I do to Hiro?
You ditched him. You ditched him for my dad. Do you know how shitty that is?
I didn’t ditch him for your dad. I joined the wrestling team. Besides, Mrs. Clay told me I should—
Who cares, dude? You two were like best friends since second grade. You guys were like always on the teeter-totter during recess giggling and shit.
She laughed, and I told her we never rode the teeter-totter, even though we did—all the time. And then I told her I tried to get Hiro to join with me, and she rolled her eyes and blew more smoke in my face.
Yeah, she said. That would’ve been awesome. Hiro and my dad.
Hey, I said, I tried.
Yeah sure, Wes. You tried really hard.
I turned around, looked back at Mrs. Clay’s house. The lights went out and, to this day, I remember how amazingly quiet it got. The neighborhood felt like a ghost town. And Stephanie spat on the ground, and the orange streetlights washed over our skin, and we were the last two people on Earth. I asked her for one of the cigarettes, and she asked me if I’d ever had one. I told her I hadn’t, so she asked me what her dad would think of me smoking, and I told her I didn’t care what he thought. She smiled and gave me the pack.
You take it, she said. Smoke them all. Do it in front of my dad.
I pulled one out and put it in my mouth, and she told me to put my tongue on the tip of the filter because it would make it last longer. So we stood in the middle of the street and smoked our cigarettes in silence, people glaring at us through their living room windows, and then we went our separate ways.
We hear the rumble of a bulldozer and the crowd cheers. Kurt Loder talks to a reporter from CNN, laughing and shaking his head—the whole thing is a joke. The crowd parts as it makes its way toward the records, tearing up the grass on the courthouse lawn. It pushes the records together, and then backs up, moving to another spot to push them together again, tearing up more grass. Wave takes another swig from the flask, and I realize he’s been the only person drinking it, so I ask him for a sip. And that’s all I get—a sip.
Jesus Christ, Wave, I say. You drank it all.
Yeah, he says. What’re you gonna do, you know?
He smiles, bleary-eyed and bloodshot, and says he’s sorry. A group of women stand behind us, holding hands in a circle, heads bowed in prayer.
Did you guys know that Slayer stands for Satan Laughs As You Eternally Rot? Darcy asks.
Really? I say. That’s stupid.
Well, Darcy says, it is what it is.
I hated when people said that: it is what it is. What does that even mean? It means we’re giving up, that’s what that means. Oh well, everything is a huge pile of shit. But hell, it is what it is, right? What about things that aren’t what they are? What about things that aren’t as they seem? What about the fact that none of these people actually give a shit about the kid lying in a hospital bed with tubes and catheters sticking out of him? What about the fact that most of these assholes are from out of town—that we were going to be the ones left behind to clean up the mess? What about the fact that the ringleader of this legion of morons—this trusted community leader—ran a good person out of town, and all the while he was jerking off to good people just like her?
I guess it is what it is, right?
Pastor Mike’s megaphone squeals with feedback, and everyone clamps their hands over their ears. He clears his throat and thanks everyone for coming. He says that if Hiro were able to be here, he’d thank them too. The out-of-towners shout down the metal kids, who are being shoved off the lawn by the police. They slump onto the courthouse steps and began chanting Bullshit. Pastor Mike asks everyone to bow their heads in prayer—and Stephanie starts to cry, really cry with wailing and sobbing—and Darcy nudges me in the ribs.
Can you believe Princess Stephanie is crying over there? she says. This is hilarious.
Dude, I say. She’s about to have all her records burned. By her dad. That sucks.
Oh God, she says. Whatever. She’s a prissy little stuck-up bitch. The metalheads only like her because she pays for everything.
Don’t you feel bad for her at all?
Hey, where’s Wave?
We look down, see Wave facedown on the grass. The disgusted ladies from the prayer circle look at him, then at us, and Darcy places her thumb on the back of her front teeth and then flicks it toward them. Pastor Mike says Amen, and then clears his throat.
Now, as you all know, he says, the modern world is a scary place, particularly if you’re a young person. Your body’s changing, the way you see the world is changing, and my heart just goes out to young people when I see the fear of that in their eyes. Here’s the thing, folks: these young kids, sometimes they just don’t know where to turn. So they turn to drugs. They turn to sex. They turn to the devil.
The crowd jeers, not at Pastor Mike the way normal people should, but at the devil. They actually begin shouting curses at Satan. Curse you, Satan, a woman screams as if he were here to listen.
Pastor Mike says a few words about Paladin being the kind of music the devil uses to seduce young people and then recites Paladin lyrics into the microphone, one after another, in a cool monotone. Rhyming couplets about war, and pestilence, and sheets of fire raining down upon the Earth—they’re actually pretty good. Wave gets on all fours and pukes. I lean over and rub my palm along his back as the out-of-towners glare at us.
Paladin, Pastor Mike says, do you know what Paladin stands for? It’s an acronym, a secret Satanic code—we know they do this—AC/DC, Antichrist/Devil Child; Rush, Raised Under Satan’s House; Slayer, Satan Laughs As You Eternally Rot.
See? Darcy whispers. Told you.
Well do you know what Paladin stands for? Pastor Mike shouts. P, pray. A, away. L, the light. A, and. D, the devil. I, is. N, nigh. P, A, L, A, D, I, N—Paladin—Pray away the light, and the devil is nigh.
The crowd begins to murmur—some even gasp. I can hear the metalheads groaning from across the street. The MTV News cameraman keeps his camera trained on Pastor Mike. Kurt Loder leans over and whispers into the cameraman’s ear. He then leans over to the CNN reporter and speaks out of the corner of his mouth. They both laugh. I turn to Darcy, whose fingertips rest against her cheeks, her mouth wide open with amusement.
Burn the fucking records, she shouts and everyone cheers—they actually cheer.
And that’s that. Pastor Mike finally sets the records on fire, and the fumes from the melting vinyl chokes the air around us until we all have to back away, and then run for cover as smoke stings and waters our eyes. We scoop Wave up and walk him across the street, and Hair Bear pulls a military canteen from his jean jacket and tells Wave to have some water, and we sit on the courthouse steps, the metalheads hanging their heads and muttering curses, and I wonder if this is one of those things that I’ll someday look back on and laugh at. Stephanie sits wrapped in Heather’s arms and legs, her hand resting in Heather’s chest.
I watch the smoke rise from the flaming pile, like souls leaving a corpse, and think about “Viking Funeral,” one of the Paladin songs Pastor Mike quoted in his speech. In the song, a man is burned alive, and his soul returns to exact violent revenge upon the mob that murdered him.
When we were in fourth grade, I say, Hiro and I stole the samurai sword in his dad’s study and took it into the woods behind his house. And we took turns slicing icicles off branches. Every icicle we could reach was toast.
So what’s your point? Stephanie asks.
Why don’t you let him finish? Darcy says. You might find this hard to believe, Steffi, but the world doesn’t revolve around your tears.
Stephanie’s eyeliner runs down her face like World Wrestling Federation war paint, and the flames dance up and down like pom-poms as the record sleeves crumple into gray ash, and I want to say something to her, but what’s the point?
I don’t know, I say. I guess that’s all I wanted to say.
That’s it? Stephanie says. Seriously? Well thanks for sharing your lame fucking story.
Everyone stares at me, and I lower my head, but not because I’m sad, or because Stephanie hurt my feelings. I just don’t like them staring at me is all.
We sheathed the sword and took it back to the study, placing the scabbard back on the wooden stand, thinking we were in the clear. Two weeks later, Dr. Nishihara took out the sword for some reason and noticed a tiny chip in the blade. Hiro admitted he’d taken it out into the woods and was whipped with a belt. Dr. Nishihara cried the entire time. Later that night, he told Hiro how there used to be two swords, how they’d been confiscated during World War II.
My dad said while they were in that camp in Arizona, Hiro told me, his grandmother cried every night over those swords.
Then in ’68, while Dr. Nishihara was on shore leave in San Diego, he saw the sword we’d chipped in a pawn shop. He asked the shopkeeper where the other one was, and the man told him he’d sold it four months ago, and Dr. Nishihara flew into a rage, telling the shopkeeper how those swords should never have been separated, how those swords weren’t his to sell. The man almost called the police, until Dr. Nishihara offered $226—all the money he’d had—for the sword.
Thing is, even while he was being whipped by his dad, Hiro never sold me out, never told his dad I was there with him. He just took his punishment, alone. But I don’t mention any of this to the others because what’s the point?
I don’t know, I say to Stephanie. I just wanted to think about Hiro in a nice way. Not like this.
And Stephanie turns away from me, presses her cheek against Heather’s chest, and Heather pulls her in tight, rests her chin on Stephanie’s scalp. And then Heather smiles at me, even though it isn’t much of a smile, just the best any of us can do right now. I lean back on the steps, resting on my elbows, and stare at the black smoke, the crowd of people breathing into shirt collars and handkerchiefs.
Don’t worry, Wes, Heather says. Hiro’s gonna be fine.
Yeah right, Stephanie says. We’re all just gonna look back at what these assholes did to us and laugh our heads off.
Here’s the thing about Hiro: he’s not going to be fine. There’s no fucking way. These same people who prayed for his soul are going to shun him as soon as he recovers from this, if he actually recovers at all. And he probably won’t because everyone’s going to treat him differently now, every single one of us. And maybe someday, we actually will look back on this and laugh at how small-minded and ignorant everybody was—the way we sat in Mr. Dornan’s class and laughed at those comically fevered Nazis in that filmstrip—but none of this is funny right now. None of this is funny right now. ☐