The Seventh Level

by K.C. Hutchinson

[Editor's Note: It's not often that a tale, even while repelling me, grabs ahold of me and compels me to read it through. The portrait of Kerr is sharply drawn and holds one's interest, even though he's a revolting excuse for a human being.]

The screen door creaked and groaned, its old wooden joints complaining about the musty, damp breath of the drizzly evening. He leaned into it harder, popping it open with an almost imperceptible shove. Lighting his smoke, he sauntered out onto the porch, yawning and stretching, his Army surplus boots hitting the wooden floor with a dull thud, a heavy, ominous sound that seemed to flatten out and circle him, going nowhere in particular. He held the door open as wide as possible before letting it slam, to make a bigger bang.

“Maggie! Watch that damn door!” From the kitchen, a high-pitched woman’s voice cut through the game show shit droning on the TV. “I just got the friggin’ landlord to fix it!”

A young voice sassed back. “Wasn’t me! It was Uncle Kerry!”

“I don’t care! Just don’t do it again!” His sister, older by ten years, always had the last word, especially when she was drunk. She’d started on the vodka early tonight; she’d be passed out by nine-thirty.

He inhaled, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, and stretched again, exhaling. Everywhere he looked, he saw grey. The porch was the same industrial grey as the floor in the landlord’s machine shop. Film from the smokestacks upriver coated the once-white bungalows across the street. The sky was overcast, fading into a dreary night. He felt himself sliding into a black mood, which he didn’t want to do. It was Saturday night, and he didn’t have to get up the next morning at five to be at the bakery by six to sweep floors and wash dishes for the bakers and the lady who decorated cakes.

“Uncle Kerr?”

“Hey.” He turned around, hopping up to sit on the porch rail. His nephew, Danny, hovered in the doorway.

“You goin’ out tonight?”

“Yeah. Sure.” Kerr blew three perfect smoke rings, showing off. He knew Danny secretly practiced them under the bathroom exhaust fan.

“How come you never, like, bring home a girl?”

Kerr choked mid-ring, the smoke rushing out through his nose and he began to laugh. Girls were something you had in the back of somebody’s car or outside somewhere, behind a few bushes. He was usually too buzzed to remember what they looked like, and they were so full of beer they’d almost pass out as soon as he got them on their backs.

“But, Mom always brings home a boyfriend, whenever she goes out.”

Kerr settled against the post. “That’s ‘cause she thinks she needs somebody. Anyway, the more time she spends in the sack, the less she spends with the her pal Stoly.” He blew another smoke ring, wondering if there was any hope for the kid, sure that he could not have been so dumb at his age. Danny looked like he was about to say something else, but he was interrupted by someone coming up the sidewalk.

“New Docs!” Danny stepped part way out of the screen door to get a better look, still clinging to the handle.

Kerr looked down at the new black boots on the visitor. “Not bad.” He nodded approvingly. “Where’d they come from?”

“A nice lady left this behind at the restaurant.” Buzz produced a fancy designer wallet from his jacket with a flourish. “It was real heavy, so I lightened it for her.”He grinned, adding an eyebrow move that made him look like a tattooed Curly.

“You kept it? What for?”

“‘Cause it’s really expensive. Thought your sister would like it.”

“No fucking way.” Kerr tossed his butt on the lawn.

“Why not? She might like a young stud.” He shuffled his new boots, a hangdog look on his face.

“She would. But it’d make me puke.” He took the wallet from Buzz’s hand and gave it to Danny. “Give this to Maggie.”

“Any left?”

Buzz shrugged. “Some.”

Kerr jumped off the railing and zipped his leather. “Good. You can buy.”

“Danny, who’s out there?” His sister’s voice trailed them down the sidewalk, piercing the neighborhood din and making the stubble on the nape of his neck stand up.

“Nobody.” The kid sounded sad. “They’re gone already.”

The old Town Car with the crumbling fenders waited for them half a block down the street. Buzz’s father must be out playing poker, or else his mother wouldn’t dare give him her car. They picked up Gunner at the corner, just coming out of the tattoo parlor.

“Fuckin’ bitch!” He slammed the rear door of the car as he got in, his big frame looking cramped. His skin was red across his cheeks and on the back of his neck, halfway up his scalp. “Bitch won’t give me a tattoo!”

“Why not?”

“Who knows?! I mean, I offer to work around the place for her, tryin’ to make a deal. I almost have her talked into it, too, then she asks me what kind of tattoo I want. I show her this spider web, and she starts lookin’ me up and down. What do I know? Maybe it turns her on or something. But then she starts screamin’ at me, only half of it in fuckin’ English. Something about her husband gettin’ killed in prison by some gang.”

“Yeah, you got her excited, all right,” Buzz quipped.

Gunner reached up front and gave Buzz a smack, just below the ear.

“Easy! I’m drivin’ here!”

“Anyway, she keeps goin’ on and on, and I don’t know what she’s saying, except that she’s pushin’ me out the door. So I tell her she can just eat me, then I bend over and blast her one right in the face.” Gunner lifted one leg and let loose a thunderous fart, then sat back in the seat, his arms folded across his chest. “Fuckin’ bitch!”

“Since when is there a broad in there?” Kerr had hung out there a couple of years ago, when it was run by a guy named Leo, an ex-merchant marine.

“Pocohantas? Maybe six months.”

“She’s a squaw? Good thing you didn’t try to screw her.” Buzz pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store with bars on the windows. The old guy who ran the place was afraid of them, so he never asked for ID. “You’d have been dickless real quick.” He got out, then leaned back in the driver’s window. “Now, be good while I’m gone, kids. And if you see any Tontos, Pakis, or niggers...Run ‘em over!” Jeers and belches followed Buzz into the store, turning to cheers and whoops a couple of minute later when he came back with a bottle of cheap whisky and a case of cold beer.

They drove around, drinking beer and listening to the radio, looking for something to do. After a couple of beers, Buzz started to talk about some book he was reading. It sounded like all the other books he read. This one was about people from the third world plotting to get in the country as refugees, then have tons of kids and take over and kill white people. Kerr didn’t care. Most of the shit Buzz read was crazy, and he didn’t want to think. It was Saturday night, and they had a car and booze. All they needed was a party.

An hour later, over half the case was gone. They’d coasted into a rich part of town where the streets were lined with high walls and fences, and through the wrought iron gates they could only catch glimpses of big houses presiding at the ends of long driveways. They turned onto a street that led down to a cul-de-sac. At the end, one of the gates stood open. They slowed down as they approached. Light spilled out of the windows of the house, and small white lights lined the driveway. A guy in windbreaker and tie stood near the front door, and past him waited a couple of limos and twenty or thirty expensive European cars, parked in tidy rows on the lawn. They stopped outside the gate.

Buzz tapped the gas and nosed the ancient Lincoln through the entrance. Its springs screeched.

Kerr nearly jumped out of his seat. “What the fuck’re you doin?!”

“Goin’ to a party.” Buzz stared straight ahead, determined, steering the car up the driveway. Inside the house, they could see people wearing suits and evening dresses.

“Shit! We’re gonna get bus-ted! My old man says if he has to bail me one more time, I’m outta the house.”

“C’mon, Buzz! Let’s get the fuck outta here!” They were nearing the front steps, and Kerr could see the valet lift a walkie-talkie. “There’s nothin’ in there! Let’s go downtown!”

Buzz didn’t have a chance to say anything. In less than a second, three men in dark suits swarmed the car. Buzz hit the brakes. The car doors flew open and Kerr felt himself being hauled out by the collar.

“Hey!” Someone pushed him against the car.

“Hands on the hood and spread ‘em.”

He followed orders. Across from him, Buzz was doing the same, but his face was red and twisted, like he was about to explode.

“Clean.” The voice came from behind him, echoed by another to his left.

“Okay, boys. Time to see some ID.” A black cop, the one who’d frisked Buzz, did the talking. He flashed a badge. “I’m Sergeant Walker, and these are officers Raczka and Chin. Now, let’s have the license and registration.”

Buzz crawled across the front seat and reached into the glove box for the registration while the cop who’d frisked Kerr gathered licenses. The third cop shined his flashlight in the back seat and confiscated the remains of the case of beer, then flashed it quickly across the front seat and the ashtray.

The sergeant looked over Buzz’s license, then the registration. “So, you got your momma’s car tonight.”

Buzz didn’t answer. The cop looked at him, waiting. Buzz still didn’t answer. He tapped Buzz’s license against his flashlight. Another long minute went by until finally—

“Yeah.” Buzz’s voice was full of disgust.

“The right answer is ‘Yes sir.’”

“Yes. Sir.”

A fourth man in a dark suit came up. Even out of uniform, it was easy to tell he was military.

“Problem, Sergeant?”

“No sir. Just some curious kids.”

The military man looked them over. He curled his upper lip slightly and sniffed. “Well, move ‘em along. Quickly.” He spun around on his heel and left.

The sergeant shrugged. “It’s your lucky night, ladies. Personally, I’d love run you in for trespassing and underage drinking, but the governor’s security chief doesn’t want Mrs. Gershenson’s party ruined over a couple of punks. So, you get a break tonight.” He handed Buzz’s license and the registration back. “Don’t waste it.”

The three cops watched them turn around and drive back out to the street. Once outside the front gate, Buzz slammed it in low gear and punched the gas, burning rubber up the street. The Lincoln shuddered under the strain. Kerr watched in the rear view mirror, expecting to see flashing lights, but none appeared.

When they rounded the corner, Buzz lost it. He went crazy, pounding the steering wheel and screaming “A nigger! A nigger!” over and over. “That nigger had his hands on me! All over me!” He let go of the wheel and turned into a wild man, beating imaginary bugs off his thighs. Kerr dove for the wheel to keep the car on the road.

“Watch it, for fuck’s sake!”

Buzz snatched the wheel again, his muscles rigid. “Jesus fucking Christ! A nigger had his hands on my cock!”

“Yeah, he probably...” Gunner started, but Kerr cut him off with a look. Gunner changed course. “But look what they didn’t find.” He pulled out his pack of smokes and dug his index finger far into the back corner, producing a joint.

“You been holdin’!”

“Nah. Just waitin’ for the right time.” Gunner lit the joint. “Good thing all those cops were looking for was guns.”

“I’ll say.” Kerr took the joint from Gunner. “And what happened to the bottle?”

“Under your seat,” Buzz sounded a little better. Getting away with a couple of things took the edge off. Kerr felt around under his seat and found the whisky.

“Stupid fuckin’ coon,” Buzz said.

They drove around for another hour, smoking Gunner’s joints and passing the bottle, finally winding up downtown near Third and Bridge. By the time they got there, they were blasted and rowdy enough that Gunner had taken a leak out of the back window, exposing himself to passing cars on the freeway.

They cruised up and down the Third a couple of times, trading insults with a car full of jocks. After a while, they parked the car on a side street, then started working their way through the crowd.

Kerr was feeling the dope and the booze, and as they walked down the packed sidewalks, it was hard not to bump into bodies on all sides. The faces and the movement of the different people around him seemed like a dream, not real somehow. Eventually he began to roll with it.

Suddenly, he felt the soft thump of another body, the jostling and the bodies and the swooping colors of hair and skin and clothing stopped, and all he could see was this girl, directly in front of him, her face filling his entire field of vision. She was tall, a little taller than he was, so he had to look up a bit, and she had enormous brown eyes, dark skin, bright red lips. Kerr just stood there, gaping, his lips parted.

“What’re you lookin’ at?” Her eyes narrowed, and she stepped back, shifting her hips. She flicked the ash from her cigarette and stuck it back in her mouth.

Kerr felt Buzz tugging his elbow, and vaguely realized other people were backing away, but he was too stoned to move. All he seemed to be able to do was stand, a bit unsteadily, and stare.

“I said, what’re you lookin’ at?” She repeated herself, louder this time, almost a shriek, cigarette hanging from her shiny lips.

The wall of people across from him parted, and two tough-looking blacks walked through. They were wearing the latest jock jackets. Under one, half-zipped, Kerr saw a flash of metal.

I’m dead. I’m gonna die right here. He tried choking down the bile trying to rise from his stomach, his feet still glued to the sidewalk.

“Who’s botherin’ you?” One of the black guys walked up to the woman, placing his hand on her backside in a proprietary way. The other, the one with the gun, stood back, his eyes on Kerr.

“Look at that dumb fuck.” Everyone was watching now. “He won’t stop. Dumb fuckin’ skinhead, standin’ there with his mouth open.”

Kerr closed his mouth. Her boyfriend looked at him.

“You botherin’ my woman?” His voice was calm. “She says you are. Now what’m I supposed to do?” The boyfriend stepped closer, now nose-to-nose with him. Kerr held his gaze, but he was sure he was going to piss himself any second. He felt something hard, a knee, smash his groin, once, twice, then once again. He doubled over on the sidewalk. A shoe connected with the side of his head, and he was turned over looking up at the girl and her boyfriend. Instinctively, he rolled up on all fours and started to stand, but was down again with a fist to his jaw and a couple of kicks. He stayed down. The pain in his groin was beginning to seem real to him, no longer kept at a distance by his altered state. It felt like an angry flame that was slowly spreading through every part of his being. He could hear people laughing.

“Enough?!” Kerr didn’t dare look up. He heard the boyfriend horking up phlegm into his mouth, then felt something wet hit the back of his head. The laughter got louder. The pain broke through the dope and booze fog in his head. The boyfriend’s shoes walked away, followed by the girl’s spikes. The laughter died down and the sidewalk filled in with feet in all kinds and sizes of shoes. He felt himself being lifted by his arms, and began to pant, trying to breathe out the pain as his friends helped him away.

Buzz and Gunner led him to the park on the other side of Bridge, and sat him down on a cement bench inside a small clearing surrounded by hedges.

“Jesus! Nigger spit!” Buzz sounded like he was going to hurl. Kerr tried to wipe the slimy liquid off his head, then wiped his hand on the grass.

“You okay?”

Kerr nodded his head. “I just gotta sit for awhile.”

“I know what you need.” Gunner turned and loped gracefully across the park, returning a minute later with the rest of the bottle. “Anesthetic.” He grinned and held out the bottle to Kerr, who smiled weakly and took a swig, holding his breath for a few seconds while he waited for the pain to recede. Buzz grabbed the bottle and tipped it back.

“Fuckin’ niggers! The next one I see, I’m gonna take out!” Buzz was starting on to get crazy again, but Kerr didn’t have the energy to stop him.

“You smokin’ crack?! You never know if they’re in a gang, or their brother’s in a gang.” Gunner motioned for Buzz to pass the bottle, then Kerr did the same. He took another swig and floated away for a few minutes, maybe longer, he wasn’t sure, on a cloud of pain, then back again as it began to fade. His buzz from the joint had disappeared, and as the pain seemed to drift further from him, he began to feel something else, something black. He slumped over, his elbows on his knees, tired and sick and angry. His life sucked. It had always sucked, and it wasn’t ever going to change. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Somebody had to pay. He didn’t particularly care who it was, or whether they deserved to pay or not. He just wanted to make somebody pay for the shit-hole he called his life. It was the only thing he could do.

“I wanna take out a slant.” He blinked, surprised. He didn’t know where those words came from. He’d never said or thought anything like that before. But now that they were out, the words seemed to cruise under their own power, taking him along for the ride. Suddenly, he didn’t feel tired and weak and worthless anymore. He felt big and strong, like someone to be reckoned with. He decided to keep going, to follow the strong, powerful feeling wherever it went, all the way to hell. He doubted hell had anything he hadn’t already seen.

“Gooks, Chinks, all of ‘em. Worthless pieces of shit. Lookit my dad. His factory moved to China, and he can’t make half as much working two jobs now. My mom ran off with some asshole in a Caddy. Even the house is gone. And me, I’m gonna be moppin’ fuckin’ floors in that fuckin’ bakery the rest of my life.”

Finished, he looked up, not knowing what to think or say or do next. Buzz nodded at him like See? It’s like I’ve been telling you. Kerr began to understand all the crazy shit Buzz’d been talking about since he’d stumbled on that Web site in high school. For the first time in his life, his rage had somewhere to go.

He poured the last of the whisky on the ground. Gunner made a move forward to save it, then checked himself. Kerr had had enough of this shit, enough of everything. He didn’t know what was going to happen next, or how to stop it, or if he should try. Buzz watched him without saying anything for awhile. Nobody said anything for a long time.

Then Buzz stood up. “Let’s go.”

Let’s go, was all he said. And they followed him.

They left the clearing and walked back along the edge of the park, moving slowly up its length, far past the crowd. The party spirit they’d had earlier was gone. Now, they were looking for something else.

Buzz slowed, concentrating up a few yards ahead. Two guys in university jackets, maybe a couple of years older than they were, were trying to pick up a couple of girls. They were both a little unsteady on their feet, like they weren’t used to drinking. One of them was Asian.

The girls brushed them off, heading in the other direction. Gunner lit a cigarette. They waited. The college boys shrugged and headed back to their car. Without a word, Buzz turned after them.

Kerr and Gunner followed.

The college boys turned down Second, then to a side street. No one was around. Kerr didn’t stop to think why they were trailing them, or even if it was something he wanted to do. He just did it. His body no longer hurt. He no longer felt angry, or humiliated, or hopeless, just tense, like an over-tightened guitar string on the verge of breaking. The college boys didn’t see them until they turned down the next street. Then the two in front picked up their pace, talking nervously, and the three behind shortened the distance.

All at once, the college boys took off running, splitting off in different directions. Buzz, Kerr and Gunner took off after the Asian, leaving the other alone. The target began to panic when he saw all three of them gaining on him, slipping, almost falling, trying door after door of a deserted warehouse. His friend shouted at them, frightened and confused, then began to run the other way, yelling for help. Down the block, they easily overtook the target, and dragged him into the alley.

What happened next didn’t seem real. Buzz let loose a war cry, and a madness took over. Kerr wasn’t aware of telling them to, but his fists and his feet were flying in and out between those of his friends, into the soft belly and hard ribs, against backbone, hipbones and legs. He was aware of nothing but rage, so deep and strong it washed his reason away.

At first, the college boy tried to hit back, then to cover his head with his arms, but they were too weak and small to defend him. Soon, he gave a little cry and slumped down the brick of the warehouse wall. When he hit the ground, it was over.

The three stood over him, breathing hard. Kerr looked at the bloodied body lying at his feet, breathing but unconscious. He felt no remorse, no pity, only a feeling of release.

Gunner spat on the ground. Buzz zipped his jacket up, giving the slumped form one last look, then turned and headed up the alley, talking aloud to himself as much as to the other two, trying to hide his abhorrence and his fear: “Fuckin’ pooch eater didn’t put up much of a fight.” In a near trance, Kerr and Gunner continued to follow.

The sound of distant sirens floated into the alley. They began to jog lightly, automatically. Gravel and broken glass crunched under their boots, echoing off the broken warehouse windows lining both sides of the alley, three stories high.

“They’re getting’ closer.” Gunner’s voice was flat as they turned out the opposite end of the alley. It was hard to tell, but it was possible that they were getting closer, possible that the friend had called the police. The thought only crossed Kerr’s mind as a point of interest, not as a threat. They turned towards King. From there they could double back to the side street where they’d left the car. They pushed themselves harder to climb a steep grade, but they weren’t in a panic, running from the law.

As he strode along, Kerr thought about how strange it was, the three of them meandering like Sunday joggers with the police probably not far enough behind them. He had run from the police many times before, for petty crimes, kid stuff, and those times he had always been afraid of being caught. This time, though, he wasn’t scared. He just felt empty.

Then it struck him, as things sometimes did when he least expected it, that they weren’t running harder because there was nothing to fear. They had nothing to lose. Whoever or whatever they might have been before tonight, this strange Saturday night, was lost. Who they had become tonight could not be left behind in the past; they could not be escape themselves. Still, they continued to run, habit alone driving them forward, unsure of why they ran, not caring how fast or how far because it simply didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

They were already gone.

The Seventh Level
© 2006 by K.C. Hutchinson


About the Author

K.C. Hutchinson is a former television producer, a freelance writer, an occasional journalist, and the writer/director of a new short film, Veritales. She has previously published a short story in The Adirondack Review, and she is currently working on a non-fiction book project.



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