Leslie Z had three strikes against him already: he was Black, he was bi, and he liked Hanoi Rocks.
That third strike especially was borderline suicidal on the Gulf Coast of Florida in the late 1980s, where even teasing your hair up was enough to get you stomped into applesauce by the bikers, or the skinheads, or some zit-faced banger in a Carnivore shirt. Having sex with boys, or wanting to, was a minor misdemeanor in comparison. Glam was out, death was in. But Kip Norvald had no idea about these mortal ruptures in the metal scene when he first met Leslie Z. He barely even knew what metal was.
Their paths crossed on the day the Furberold kid, Lindsey Grace, was officially listed as missing, which was also Kip’s first day at Venice High. Leslie was sitting at the back of the class, his spindly legs stretching into the next row, carving something into his desktop with a bullet from his belt. The homeroom teacher—whose name, GLADYS KRUPS, took up most of the blackboard—was introducing Kip to the class in an opiated mumble, mispronouncing his name, and he could feel himself starting to panic. What he wanted more than anything, that particular fall, was to be introduced to no one. He could barely meet his own eyes in the mirror. Now he sensed an out-of-body experience coming on, and his eyes went automatically to the classroom’s farthest nook: there they encountered Leslie Z, messing around with what Kip somehow knew, in his gut, was an actual bullet. Any farther from Gladys Krups and he’d have been in the next room.
Leslie looked creepy, unsavory, accustomed to violence—which was probably his secret to survival, because he also looked ridiculous. He was too tall for his desk and way too skinny for his clothes. His studded black leather jacket might have looked cool on someone else, but Leslie wore it draped over his shoulders like a cape. His T-shirt said MY OTHER T SHIRT IS THE SKIN OF MY DEFENSELESS VICTIM. His jeans were cut to ribbons just below the knee, where they disappeared into a battered pair of yellow rubber boots. Kip’s grandmother had boots like that: she used them for gardening. It cost him considerable mental effort to make sense of them on a six-foot-plus ectomorph in eyeliner and a tasseled paisley scarf. By any reasonable standard—by any Florida standard—Leslie Z should not have been alive. The sight of him made Kip momentarily forget who he was, and where he was, and the sequence of simple but nightmarish events that had gotten him there. For a count of ten he didn’t want to die.
Leslie Z had no clue about any of this, of course, and Kip would have eaten glass before he told him. He was a quarter of the way through his senior year when he washed up on the Central Gulf Coast, three weeks shy of seventeen, and he already had a long list of things that he hoped never to have to talk or even think about again. His goal for the year was to keep his mouth shut. His new classmates were dead ringers for kids who’d beaten him up in seven municipalities and counting: fidgety and slow-brained, corn-fed and sullen, impatient for the next bad thing to happen. Venice was a way station, a holding facility. His own survival strategy was simple—to render himself invisible until the second week of June.
* * *
It took ten days for Kip’s master plan to tank. He was tooling around his grandmother’s gated community two Saturdays later, on a banana-seat Schwinn he’d found in her garage, when the gods of fate saw fit to intervene.
It happened in seconds: he took a corner a little too hard, got a case of the wobbles, managed not to wipe out, then practically ran over Leslie Z. A man in a Confederate cap had him backed up against a Coke machine behind the public restrooms. The man cursed under his breath; Leslie stammered out hey in the voice of a five-year-old girl. Alarms went off in Kip’s bewildered brain. He braced his right foot lightly on the curb.
The least possible nod. “Leslie Z.”
“I sit next to you in homeroom. Not next to you, really. More like off to the side.”
“Fuck off, fag,” said the redneck.
“I’m Kip Norvald.”
“I stand corrected,” said the redneck. “Fuck off, Kip.”
“I know who you are,” mumbled Leslie.
“Cool,” Kip heard himself answer. “What’s going on here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Slowly, mechanically, the redneck’s head revolved to face him.
“We do mind you asking.”
The redneck said this in a thoughtful tone, as though Kip’s question had a certain merit. He had a red neck in the most literal sense, sun-blistered and tatted, and a ruby stud in one of his front teeth.
Kip got off the Schwinn. Things were taking a distinctly dreamlike turn. Mrs. Rathmore, one of his grandmother’s neighbors, glided by on her scooter and wished him a good morning. It was already late afternoon.
“I’m going to have to ask you to stop what you’re doing,” Kip said to the redneck.
“Is that right.”
“That’s right. Or I call the police.”
“With what?” said the man. “Has your bike got a phone?”
Leslie let out a breath. “Maybe we could all just kind of—”
Kip was still trying to figure out what to say when he punched past the redneck, barely missing his face, and slammed his fist into the Coke machine. Its front wasn’t glass but it shattered like glass. Cold air snaked up his arm. His vision had gone blank—white with flickering geometric patterns, like the screen of a busted TV—the way it always did when he had one of his episodes. Things went silent and white, then dim, then inky black, then back to normal. All in less than a second. He felt no pain at all.
“Shit on this,” said the redneck. “I’m gone.”
He pushed away from Leslie, made a lazy lunge at Kip, then crossed the little parking lot and ducked into the bushes. There was a cutoff in there—a narrow dirt track, always slightly muddy, that Kip had thought he was the only one to know about. He was shaking now, which usually happened afterward, and beginning to feel things again. Mostly what he felt was fear. He pictured the redneck coming back from somewhere with a gun.
“Wow,” said Leslie.
“Kind of fucked up, aren’t you, son. Or maybe you’re just stupid.”
“You’re welcome,” Kip said, pulling his bike up off the pavement.
“Your hand is bleeding.”
“Yeah,” Kip said, willing himself to stop shaking. “That happens sometimes.”
Kip didn’t answer. It was too much to explain. Leslie sat down on the curb and closed his eyes.
“How about you, man? You okay down there?”
Leslie passed a hand gingerly over his face. There were tiny purple crosses on his fingernails. “You want the truth, Norvald? I’ve had better days.”
“I believe it.”
“He believes it,” said Leslie.
“What was that all about?”
“That was Harley Boy Ray. He was selling me weed.”
“Oh,” said Kip.
“Now he gets it. Now he starts to understand.”
“I don’t actually,” said Kip. He’d bought marijuana himself—half a dozen times, maybe—and it had never involved being assaulted behind a public restroom by a man with a rhinestone in his teeth. But he asked no more questions, not then, because the icy wave of shame that had dogged him every waking moment since he could remember, waiting for him to make the slightest miscalculation, the least social misstep, had already come thundering down.
“Shit. Sorry about that. It’s just—it kind of looked as if—”
“Ray does beat me up sometimes, if you want to know the truth.” Leslie looked past him now, across the parking lot. “It’s situational.”
Kip had no idea how to reply. A breeze stirred the treetops. Mrs. Rathmore scootered by again.
“Norvald,” Leslie said, apparently to himself. “Kip Norvald.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“Nothing.” He reminded himself to breathe. “It’s a nickname.”
Leslie nodded for a while, squinting down at his shoes, as though Kip had told him something unexpected. Kip expected him to ask what his given name was but he did no such thing. He just sat on the curb. Kip pretended to inspect the back tire of his Schwinn.
“Got a smoke, Norvald?”
“What?” The wave hit him again. “No, man. I wish.”
“I wouldn’t mind taking a spin on that bike you’ve got there.”
Kip couldn’t tell whether Leslie was being sarcastic or not—a problem he’d soon be having with him on an hourly basis. “Seriously? On this piece of crap?”
“That’s the one.”
“Be my guest.”
He found the Schwinn an hour later, lying on its side in the carport of a mud-colored bungalow on Madrugada Drive. Leslie himself was standing in the bungalow’s picture window, wearing some kind of housecoat, staring thoughtfully out at the burnt-looking lawn. He opened the front door just as Kip was reaching for the bell.
“Hey there, Norvald.”
“What the fuck, Leslie?”
“Z,” said Leslie, stifling a yawn.
“I don’t even—”
“What the fuck, Leslie Z.”
He yawned again and shuffled back inside. Kip lingered on the threshold, an old habit, trying to get a read on what kind of domestic situation he was about to step into. The house smelled like pot smoke and marinara sauce and cloves—and also, in some way he couldn’t put his finger on, like the past. It was musty and dark. He felt a sudden urge, standing there with the sun on his back, to turn around and grab his bike and go. That forgotten-seeming bungalow, with its motionless air and mottled carpeting and peeling paisley wallpaper, was quite possibly the most melancholy place that he had ever been.
He found Leslie in the bungalow’s tiki-themed kitchen, making himself a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. No one else was home, apparently. Leslie offered him a can of Dr. Pepper in an absentminded way, as if his being there were the most natural thing in the world. Years later, once Kip knew Leslie Aaron Vogler the way you can only know someone you’ve seen die and come back to life on the floor of your bathroom, he would realize that stealing the bike had just been Leslie’s way of inviting him over. He was as solitary as Kip was, maybe even as lonely, and he wanted someone to bear witness to the high point of his day: the hour and a half—never more, never less—when he played records on his parents’ stereo.
The system was a mid-seventies Marantz 1060, hands down the most beautiful object in the house, with one pair of speakers behind the magenta-and-turquoise sectional in the sunken den and a second down the hall in Leslie’s bedroom. This meant that he had to cross the entire house to flip his LPs, but he didn’t seem to mind. The setup spoke well of Leslie’s parents, it seemed to Kip—of their permissiveness, not to mention their income—and he fought back a pang of resentment. He pictured them as kindly, even-keeled progressives who just so happened, judging by the prominence of Liberace and Lawrence Welk in their record collection, to have slightly campy taste in music. As Leslie fiddled with the EQ, Kip found himself wondering where the two of them were, and what they did for a living, and why their spacious home was so neglected-looking. The longer he thought about it, the more baffling it seemed. He couldn’t make the pieces fit together.
“Good to go!” Leslie sang out, jumping up and bobbing ahead of Kip down the hallway like some kind of flightless bird. Kip had never seen him move so fast before. They made it to the bedroom just in time for the opening lick.
“What is this?” Kip shouted.
Leslie shot him a wild leer and passed him the sleeve. Five men in lipstick and wedding-cake hair, tarted up in heels and scarves and bangles, any one of them hotter than the best that Venice High School had to offer. The platinum blond in the middle, who was obviously the singer, made Kip uncomfortable in a way he didn’t want to think about. He set the sleeve down gingerly on the bedside table, sure by now that he was getting in over his head. It was time to go home.
The feeling ebbed, however, as the song built toward its chorus. Something was definitely happening. The music didn’t do much for him, not yet, but it clearly did something for Leslie. His eyes had rolled back in his head and his torso was twitching. He looked like someone walking on hot coals. Watching him get off on those tinny riffs and plastic vocals, sappy though they were, made Kip’s throat go tight with envy. He’d never seen anyone enjoy anything that much, not even drugs. He hadn’t known that kind of joy existed.
“Hanoi fucking Rocks,” Leslie said once the needle had lifted.
Leslie regarded him coldly. “You didn’t dig it.”
“What? I haven’t even—”
“Spare me the song and dance, Norvald. It’s not like I’m surprised.”
He shook his head. “You’ve got no sense of beauty.”
Leslie strolled back down the hall, in no particular hurry now, and put on the A side. The first song kicked in soon after—three descending chords, manic and bitchy, with a moderate frosting of distortion—but Leslie was nowhere in sight. Kip sat cross-legged on the floor with his head against the side of Leslie’s bed, feeling the minutes slip by, doing his best to get his brain back up to speed. There was plenty to process. He let his eyes wander, barely listening to the music, and tried to pretend that the bedroom was his: the blood-colored walls, the slasher movie stills taped to the door, the tiny gymnastics trophy on the desk in the corner—HON MENTION GRADE 6—and the closet full of rumpled, extravagant clothes. He picked up the sleeve again and studied the band: if there was one thing the men in that photograph showed no trace of, it was the desire to disappear. He came to understand, somewhere between “I Want You” and “Kill City Kills,” that he desired everything that photograph represented, everything that Leslie’s room contained—the gypsy scarves, the eyeliner, the shamelessness, the self-indulgence. He wanted to live in that bedroom. He wanted to have already lived there for years.
Halfway through the second guitar solo on the sixth track, Kip heard Leslie’s world-weary falsetto in his ear. “‘Self Destruction Blues,’ kid. It’s right there in the name.”
Copyright © 2023 by John Wray