At the age of 17, Max Cassidy dropped out of high school. He liked drinking and dirt-bikes and could give two shits about what king conquered whom or how many laws Newton made up. Life was short–everyone told him so–too short for riding a bus forty-five minutes to Union City and doing math problems. This is what he would say later, anyway, at the Supper Bell Bar as he played pool with the guys.
It could not be said that young Max was an outcast, but he didn’t exactly fit in, either. He wore faded blue jeans and flannel shirts, steel-toed boots scuffed up and caked with mud. He carried an empty Pepsi can at all times, spitting tobacco juice into it when his teachers were distracted, which was often. He kept to himself. The first time most of his classmates heard him speak was that last day, in typing class.
It was 1993, but Union City Area High School still taught typing on Smith-Corona typewriters from the early seventies. In fact, Miss Berdanski had taught Max’s mom twenty years earlier on these same machines, not that it made a bit of difference in Kay Cassidy’s life. She waited tables at a truck stop, where she wrote orders by hand.
Miss Berdanski may have taught his father, too, but Max didn’t know. The old man had never been around. Max wasn’t even sure who his father was, or even if his mother knew. Sometimes, she came home with men he’d never seen before. She took them into her bedroom and they grunted on the old springs of her mattress for a little while. The next day, she always went shopping in town–which meant Union City, not Bradleysburg–shopping at Foodland instead of the B. W. Superette. The men never came back. Max never blamed her for it; she did what she had to do.
Miss Berdanski, on the other hand, had probably given up on life decades ago. She dressed like an extra from The Brady Bunch, polyester slacks that flared at the ankle and white blouses dingy with age. Short gray hair lay limp on her scalp, as if it too had stopped trying. An air of burnt menthol trailed her around the room as she monitored the students. If everything looked good, she liked to duck across the hall to the faculty room and smoke two or three Kools and then come back just in time for class to end.
Max usually typed one-handed, his other gripping the spit-can like a talisman. He did not know what his future held, but it would not involve what UCAHS officially called Keyboarding. Berdanski was known for giving everyone a B just for being there. (Pretty girls usually got an A.) That was fine by Max. He just wanted the bell to ring.
She took a smoke break early on Max’s last day. It was mid-April, and she may have been thinking about taxes or Easter dinner alone with her cats. Whatever the case, she bolted five minutes into Keyboarding. The click-click-click of student work ended when the door shut behind her.
A skinny blonde cheerleader stood on a chair and turned on the television mounted in the corner of the room. No regular programming, just an ABC Special Report–a news anchor discussing the standoff in Waco between the Feds and the Branch Davidian cult. Around him, students rolled their cheap office chairs into small clusters and started chatting about prom or the Pirates or some other useless shit, but Max watched the TV. It was just a plain white building, but the FBI and the ATF stood like an army outside. Bland on the outside, but evil within. They were molesting kids in there, apparently, and they’d shot some cops at the start of this thing. Fucking nut jobs.
The tall black kid who sat across from him smirked.
“Shit,” he said to Max, “when’s the last time you saw the government this mad at some white folks?”
Max shrugged and spit into the can. Bad enough he had to sit next to this project nigger. He sure wasn’t going to talk to him,
The kid–Kareem? Raekwon? Some other stupid-ass Black Power name?–kept talking. “They start rounding up rednecks, you better watch out. ATF come kickin’ down your door, son. Probably shoot your favorite deer head off the damn wall. BLAU!”
“Shut your fucking mouth, boy,” Max muttered. The aluminum in his hand crinkled as he squeezed.
“Man,” Kareem laughed. “Where do you think you are? We ain’t up in the mountains doin’ some Grizzly Adams shit. Calling me boy? You’re in my neighborhood, bitch!”
Kareem stood suddenly and leaned across his typewriter toward Max. “Why you even got beef with me? If you could take a joke as well as your mama can take a dick–”
Max flicked his left wrist, sending a stream of tobacco spit into Kareem’s face, and then he leapt onto the table and onto him, grabbing him by the ears and using his momentum to take them both to the floor. Kareem wrapped his hands around Max’s neck, squeezing as Max tried to smash his head onto the linoleum tiles.
It wasn’t long before some of Kareem’s friends moved in, their Air Jordans landing in Max’s ribs, their fists falling on his skull. It might have degenerated into a full-blown race riot if Max had friends of his own. Instead, the other students kept their distance. One thoughtful girl ran to get Miss Berdanski, startling the teacher so much that she forgot to take the cigarette out of her mouth. She ran in, huffing (and puffing), shrieking at the sight of Max unconscious, blood pouring from his nose and what looked like part of a tooth on the floor. Kareem and three others ran past her, down the stairs and out into the street.
Max had two broken ribs, a fractured orbital bone, a broken nose, and a tooth that was two-thirds gone. His face hurt like hell, but that wasn’t why he wouldn’t talk to the authorities about the incident. Not that they needed his testimony–a class full of kids had seen the fight–but he refused to help, in fact refused to come back at all.
His mother didn’t press him on it. She had never felt well-served by her diploma. Instead, she offered to get Max a job driving truck–she had a few strings she could pull. He turned that down, too. Mostly, he wanted to watch TV until he figured out what he wanted to do.
The week after his beating, he sat on the couch in his living room drinking a Carnation Instant Breakfast and watched the Branch Davidian compound burn. Billows of black smoke rose into the air, riding dark orange flames toward the sun. Child molesters and killers removed from Earth by purifying fire. The apocalypse they’d planned for had come. They died choking on smoke, Hell closing in. Sometimes, Max thought, people got what they deserved.