Achilles’ Last Stand

By on Oct 21, 2013 in Fiction

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A band from backstage

“I flipped your sign. Nobody’s looking in here.” Port didn’t glance up from his couch inspection as he spoke. Billy went back to the chair.

“Flipped the sign, huh? Then something’s rotten in Denmark, I guess.” My mom often said the same thing, and they were the first words that made me think he was the same Billy I’d grown up with. The one who car-surfed on top of Jeff’s Plymouth Horizon through soybean fields. “Why?”

“Maybe to get Jeff out of the hallway before he got arrested?” Port feigned insult that Billy would doubt this. The music grew dissonant in the background.

“Maybe you’re lying,” Billy said.

Jeff stepped between them. “Grow up,” he said, facing Billy. “I’m here because Port sent me tickets. He says you’re acting like some shithouse lunatic, and now that I’m here, I see what he means. Get over it. I work fifty hours a week packing cylinder rods, so I’m sorry if I don’t give too much of a damn about your problems. All I know is that you grew up eating the same government cheese I did.” He turned to face the stereo. “Now can you turn that grunge shit down?”

Port laughed uneasily, but Billy looked hurt. “No,” he said, taking a menacing step toward Jeff. “I can’t.” Port tensed, and so did I. We all stood there for several seconds, like something out of an Eastwood movie. Billy had murder in his eyes. I was afraid it would come to blows. That Jeff would get in trouble. So I said the only thing that came to mind.

“I like grunge.” 

I swear to God, that’s what I said. It sounds funny when I think about it now, a fifteen-year-old kid spouting his musical tastes as a peace offering, especially when I think how little I knew about music then. And how little use I’ve had for the cult of Cobain in the years since he ate the business end of that Remington Model 11. I actually thought they would laugh at me, that Billy would back down, that Jeff would punch me in the arm. But I guess funny depends on the crowd. Instead, Jeff looked at me as if I’d ratted him to the police. Before I could even smile or try to play the fool, Billy grabbed my shoulder and pulled me tight against him.

“See,” he said. “We’ve got it figured out. Me, your kid brother, half of America.” His fingers dug into the tendons of my shoulder. “And what have you been doing while we’ve been touring, anyway? Working for the highway department, maybe? Or bagging groceries? Listening to twenty-year-old music and wondering if you’ll ever make your own?” His nails were sharp through my T-shirt. “You won’t. You missed out. You’re just a white trash burnout on the downhill slide, and you’re too dumb to know it!” He shouted the last words, and I felt them move through my body and into the ground. Projecting from me as if I’d said them.

It was a defense mechanism. I know that now, but I’ve had years to think about those words and what came after. What they said about my brother, about the music. About Billy. Jesus, he was such a mess. Today, I’d feel sorry for him, half-fried by whatever pills the record company’s doctors had scripped for him. I’ve sat across the table from guys like him during interviews. Jittery hands with cigarette ashes falling around them like snow. At that moment, though, he had broken me completely. Used me against my brother. Billy was gone. All I could see was MTV Sledge, teased hair and spandex from head to toe, some sort of terrifying exhibit in a Ripley’s museum.

“Hold on a second —” Port started, but Billy grabbed the stereo remote from the counter and jacked the volume through the roof. The next instant Jeff lunged at Billy, whose grip on my shoulder loosened as he pushed me to the ground. I split my forehead on the table as I fell, and blood ran into my left eye. The fight was a crimson blur to me, and all I could hear was the sonic scrape of Cobain’s guitar fuzz throbbing in my ears. I caught flashes of Jeff and Billy tumbling around the room, knocking over furniture, busting drywall, and upturning a potted plant. I moved toward the stereo as Port tried to get between them, getting repeatedly knocked away. As I reached the knob and slapped the volume back to a human level, I heard the sound of glass breaking. Jeff had pushed Billy against the mirror, which shattered into stars that cascaded over them both. Jeff had Billy by the collar of his robe, which hung open to his navel. Blood began to bead on both of them where glass had cut them.

“— ever look at me again, you washed-up piece of shit,” Jeff hissed into Billy’s face as the music faded, spraying him with spit. I’d seen Jeff fight dozens of times, but I’d never seen him hurt someone out of pure anger before. Billy tried to wriggle free, but Jeff pushed him down again. “I didn’t miss out on anything.”

He let go of the robe, and Billy slid to the ground, one of his eyes already swelling and his teeth pink with blood. Jeff walked toward the door and grabbed my collar mid-stride, dragging me with him as the CD twittered back to its first track.

“Jeff —” Port said, moving toward us. Billy had begun sniveling.

“You’re wrong about this shit being good,” Jeff said without turning. “But you’re right that it’s better than what you play.” It was the only lie Jeff told that night.

“What about Billy?” Port asked.

“Not my problem anymore,” Jeff said. “I’ve got to work tomorrow.”

We went into the other room. Jeff closed the door behind us and started for the hallway when he saw the blood on my forehead. He grabbed my arm and dragged me to the sink.

“Stupid ass,” he said as he ran water and began dabbing at my head with a wet towel.

“I’m sorry,” I said, the corners of my mouth tugging downward.

“Yeah, right,” he said.

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Chris Drew's essays and stories have appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Big Muddy, Concho River Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and The Sycamore Review. He is currently a dissertator in the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he has served as nonfiction editor for cream city review. Chris can be found on the web at