Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Initiation

by Stephen Faulkner





It always seemed to be late in the day when they called out to me, well past five o'clock at least. They were down there, in the grimy back alley street that ran, on rainy nights, like a muddy river beneath the kitchen window of my folks' apartment. The fire escape rattled with a vengeance with every breeze, sounding as if it was about to tear itself away from the building, rattling like a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof in a hailstorm, and still their voices carried, came up to me wailing higher and louder than the din of the nervous ladders of the escape. I looked up from my plate and wandered an eye to my wrist and the black-faced watch to check on their timing; this time it was five twenty five. They were always within five or ten minutes, one way or the other, of the half hour mark.

I stuck the spoon into the quagmire laying in my plate, silken brown with lumps and colors: oxtail soup with Hamburg balls and chopped vegetables. The soup stock was from a ready-made mix while the rest of it, the neat and vegetables, were all leftovers from the weekend. Wednesday--leftover night. If I were ever to heed their calls, I thought, their whinnies and taunting razzes and asinine laughter, it would be on a Wednesday. After all, Wednesday was my folks' "date night" when my Dad would jam a crowbar in his wallet and pull out some spending cash for them to have an adults night out and eat in a restaurant and maybe see a show. Yeah, Wednesday; I would stick my head out the window to hush them before banging my way down the four flights of rickety ringing metal steps of the fire escape to the last landing where the trussed up and sliding ladder waited to take me to within a vertical yard of them. There they'd be with their simpering snotty faces, their bandy arms waving and flailing wildly, their grimy hands tugging at my blouse and shorts in their fury and rush to be gone and take me with them. Yes, it would be a Wednesday after all these months of persistently ignoring their wanton yells and cat shrieks. Of all those adolescent and changing voices that constantly let their mirth be known below my window while I ate there was one that seemed to drag its real power and vocal worth, its true tenor value, right from the very pit of its owner's guts. On the days that that voice was present, as it always is with that particular group, I found it really hard to see who it was whose deep, sing-song booming added so much to the percussive rattle of the metal stair monster that hung just outside of the kitchen window.

Wednesday, I thought. It would be just such a day as this. Wednesday would be... would be... would be... I kept thinking and then it snapped and I knew that it could be if I really wanted it. Want it, I thought; and there was no question. I looked at my watch again: five thirty-five. They had been at it for about ten minutes and they would be gone soon. Their calling was getting louder as it always did when they were fixing to leave. The oldest boy (or so I assumed he was the oldest) taunted loudly, made silly rhymes on my name for a final effort to get me to come down and join them. Angry yells began to come from above me, below me, from other windows, the other tenants in my apartment building, getting fed up and angry at all the noise. I diddled with my food, listening to his heady tenor along with the rest of them, brats by the sound of their nattering voices, all intoning my name: "Janie, Janie/Can't complainee/Gotta stay home to keep off the rainie/She won't get wet but she won't ever know no no no no..." Then it got all mixed up, the no-no's with giggles and yells and snorting laughter. The others in the building would be getting really sore pretty soon but these kids were smart. They would be sure to hightail it out before anyone got around to throwing stuff at them or calling the police on them. Then they would be off to their next stop and camp out under some other kid's window to badger and chant while I sucked down greasy oxtail gunk and Hamburg turds, wondering what the hell they had to sing and cheer about that I didn't know, and I thought if I were to go with them, learn their secret, it would be on a Wednesday. Wednesday would be the best, and then I dropped the spoon with a diarrhea brown splash and threw open the window that looked down on the back alley.

A cheer went up and would have held on for a long while if I hadn't whisper-hissed at them to hush up. "Gimme a minute." I said and saw the big fellow, the deep tenor or whatever you call that kind of voice, a head taller than the rest of the kids down there. He smiled up at me with a nod and pointed to the far end of the alley. I nodded back and held out my open hand. "Five minutes," I hissed as loud as I could. "I'll be right down." It was like I had pressed a button. All of them, about fifteen or so, took off down the alley to the designated meeting place, raising a bumbling ruckus of skidding, tramping feet while I sloughed the last of my supper down the kitchen sink drain, mashing the soggy vegetable pieces and bits of hamburger meat through the strainer with my fork.


* * *

We were walking west, fast coming to the railroad yard. During the whole half hour of the trek, taking quick peeks at my watch for the time, I was full of questions. "What's it like? Will it hurt?" and "Why do we have to go so far just for a lousy initiation?" The only answer that Joe, the headman of the group, would give to these were that all of the other kids in his brood had done it and were no worse off for it. The reason we had to walk so far was because that was where the initiation place was. I was welling up with the want to know how I had gotten chosen to be called on and, as I followed him past the first few sets of tracks, the other twelve or thirteen kids tagging along after us in a ragged single file, we passed another group coming back from the direction in which we were headed. Our leader waved to the headman of the other group, which was fifty yards or so to our right near a rusty track switcher and asked him how things had gone.

"Okay," the other one shrugged.

"How many'dja take?" asked Joe. The other leader held up two fingers. "How'd they take it?" Joe wanted to know.

"Good as can be expected," the other guy answered in a loud, conversational tone. "How many you got?"

"Just one," Joe replied, making a face. Pickings were slim.

"Good luck wit'im," called the other and left us, a long, straggling single file line of about twenty kids, thirteen and fourteen year olds like ours, stretching out behind him. A few, as far as I could tell, were "laters" like myself, late starters, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old and only now being initiated into a gang. They were the easy ones to spot, the "laters." Dark eyed and doddering like feeble old folks, glomming onto the one ahead of them for support and guidance, they were the ones that slowed the procession down. I screwed my head around to continue to watch their progress, worrying about the reasons for their unsteadiness. I wondered if that would soon be me, walking like an uncrutched cripple. Not wondering if, for I knew that that was exactly how I would appear to others after the initiation was complete. More seriously, though, I wondered, Why?

"That's Chester," grumbled one of the boys behind me. "He's got a big brood 'cause he's been around so long. Won't be 'round much longer, I 'spect. He gotta go purt soon, like they say."

"Like who says?" I asked. "Why won't he be around much longer? What do they say?"

"Ain'tcha heard?" asked Joe.

"No. What?"

"Gang leaders are supposed t'die young," he said matter-of-factly as if it made no difference to him. "The strain o' givin' out 'nitiations and just bein' a leader is what they say does it. Also the fights and rumbles between gangs--that'll cut down on your life 'spectancy some, too, I'll bet."

"And it's all said to be true," said the boy behind me, tugging my blouse tail out of the waist of my jeans in his fervor to hold on and keep up with me. "But that don't stop me from wantin' t'be a leader, dyin' young'r nuthin'."

Joe, our leader, stepped up the pace and clammed as if his arcing wad of spittle was the supreme derisive comment on the subject. "'Saload o' crap," he growled. "I'll live t'be forty and whiz on the flowers onyer grave."

He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me up alongside of him, forcing me to ape his long-legged stride in order to keep up. He slapped the kid that was dragging his heels behind me, tearing his grip away from the stretched-out material of my blouse. The boy winced and snagged the fellow closest to him for direction as Joe put his arm around my shoulder. Stunned by this, I simply reciprocated, slipping an arm around his narrow waist while he began a stumbling, nervous banter about his brood being all made up of fellows and my being the first girl and a pretty one at that and why shouldn't it come about that, after my initiation, I would be his girl. I would have agreed right there and then, being that Joe was damned cute, and all the girls in school who had ever had him out of his pants raved about his way, but, for a moment, I toyed with the notion why I should have to give in to the initiation as a condition of my being his girl when all those other girls that I had spoken to about him (some of them very good friends of mine, too) had just gone in and done it with him without the needs of the rites of initiation. It was a thing which mostly only boys saw the need or the want of going through. After all that consideration, though, I let off my answer automatically: "Sure, why not?" No real thought given to the idea at all; it just seemed to be the thing to say at the time.


* * *

We approached the building slowly, cautiously, like we were on a top secret commando raid or something. Though its two-story outline looked rather harsh and somewhat menacing in the deepening twilight, it was evident that there was no one around. I saw no real reason for our being so slow and quiet in our advance.

"It's just the way of things," Joe explained to me, whispering close to my ear. "When I came here for my 'nitiation 'bout five years ago, this place was crawlin' with guards and we had to be careful. Now that the place is closed and they're all gone, well... We just keep it up as a sort of remembrance to back then when it was really dangerous t'learn the secret.'

"Sort of a tradition, you mean?"

"Just a way of keeping it real so we don't forget, so it won't lose its importance."

"It just can't lose its importance, you know," whispered the fellow behind me, the one who had been hanging onto my blouse tail until Joe had slapped his hand away. Joe let out a snorting laugh and tightened the hold of his arm around my shoulder.

"Don't mind him," he said. "He only had his 'nitiation a few days ago. He don't know nuthin'."

"Yeah," said the boy. "I only know that it ain't gone away yet."

"I toldya it'd take a week'r so, didn't I?" Joe hissed as he dropped to a crouch. He let go of me as he pressed himself against the wall of the building, the initiation place, while making a sweeping downward motion with his right hand for the rest of the group to do the same, which we all did without question. This, then, was the tradition, the protocol that had to be honored and we were damned if any of us was going to take the chance to look the fool. The boy directly behind me was a bit slow in responding to the silent command until Joe reached around me, brushing his shoulder under my chin, and slapped the kid on the knee, making his order stingingly clear. The boy yelped and did as he was instructed, sliding his back down the wall until he was sitting on the ground with the rest of us. I watched him and Joe with equal interest as I tried to make sense of what Joe had just said as it pertained to me.

"If he's already been initiated and he don't know nothin'. Like you said," I whispered, "then what you're sayin' is that I know even less than nothin', is that it?"

I was pretty sure that that was it and I felt about ready to cry but Joe hushed me with a hand laid gently over my mouth. "Naw, you got it all wrong. I seen you in school and you're a hell of a lot smarter than he is," he said with a jerk of his thumb in the boy's direction. "Even without you're bein' 'nitiated."

I watched the kid about whom Joe was speaking. His lips were a thin, straight line, evidence of his attempting to quell his seething anger at Joe's disparaging remark, but Joe was the leader; what could the kid do or say? We moved up, staying close to the wall, stopping a few feet away from a handleless metal door into the building. Another ten yards along past the door, on the ground, was a window into the cellar. That was to be our entryway.

We went past the door quickly in a crablike run as if the threat of detection were still something to worry about, as if one of the guards of old might come out at any minute and chase us away with bursts of badly aimed machine gun fire. At the low window, I went first, slipping through on my back as if I was going under a limbo bar. Sliding along the lower sill of the window, my blouse pulled itself out of the waist of my pants again and slid up to just below my naked boobs. They were smaller than lemons and so not big enough for me to have to worry about wearing a bra, so I didn't, consoling myself with the rationalization that I was still developing, that maybe a few months down the road, next year at latest I would surely need one. The cellar was damp and cold against my bare midriff and I proudly noted to myself that my little nipples were perceptibly stiffening in response to the change in temperature. More than six months since my first period, a sparse sprinkling of pubic hair at my crotch, and now this--sure proof that I was finally becoming a woman.

Joe followed me down in the same fashion that I had used, feet first and on his back. He had left the rest of the brood outside. "Used to be when the guards were about we'd bring the whole bunch down here so they wouldn't get caught hangin' around outside, but now, wit' no one around or carin' anymore, we just let'em sit."

By the time he was through talking, my eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness of the place and I could see that we were at one end of a long hallway. "I've heard a lot about initiation," I said, "but nothing really specific. What is this place?"

"An old munitions warehouse," he answered as he led me down the hall. "When I was 'nitiated it was still being used."

The hall was barely wide enough for the two of us to traverse abreast but we managed, our shoulders rubbing against either wall and each other as we went, pressing us together as close as we possibly could get. I leaned even closer than truly necessary to Joe in a most unforgivably cowardly fashion. He pressed a warm hand against the small of my back. "There's nothing to be scared of,"

"Not scared," I lied. "Just a little nervous."

At the end of the hall was a door, black painted, metal like the one we had passed outside. This one, however, had a handle, which Joe grasped and began to pull, groaning heartily in his effort to wrench if open. "Sticks like a sumbitch... " he panted and, applying just a bit more force, got the metal monster to budge and, a moment later, to swing open on its rusty hinges with a singing squeal.

Joe, always the gentleman, let me go in first. Boxes: a room filed with what seemed to be a thousand or more flattened pasteboard boxes and, off in one corner, an old army cot frame with a musty old mattress resting on its slats. "You got something special in mind for my initiation, being I'm a girl" I asked.

Joe laughed. "That's not for 'nitiation," he said as he yanked the rusty bedstead away from the wall. "'At's for later--when you and me are courtin' for real."

He got the bed away from the wall with three hard pulls and a final shove, clattering it well away from the wooden trap door on which two of its legs had been resting. He pulled the door bearing the stenciled word CAUTION next to a decal of alternating black and yellow triangles, had it up, opened with ease, and leaned it at a severe angle away from the gaping hole.

"Down there," he instructed.

"What do I have to do?"

"Just find a place to sit down there. That's all."

Visions of being imprisoned in a hole in the ground in an old munitions warehouse for hours on end, being treated to who-knew-what kind of atrocities and humiliations in the name of "initiation" into the gang assailed me and I panicked, squawking, "How long'll I hafta be down there?" in such a voice that Joe winced and stared at me in what seemed like disappointment at my sudden show of cowardice. "Ten minutes should be more than enough," He said evenly. I couldn't detect any disgust or anger in his tone.

"Then that's it?" I said as I began my descent into the pit. "I mean, this is the great secret?"

"No," he said and closed the trap door over my head with a loud clap. "The secret comes when you get out."

All light had escaped from the four-foot square underground cubicle. It was pitch dark as I put my hands out to feel the walls around me. "Can we talk?" I called up to him. "Is that allowed? It's pretty creepy down here, and kind of scary."

"We can talk," he answered blandly. I heard a match strike, then his deep inhalation and exhale. My skin went colder than the close, frigid air in the little underground box; nightmare visions of fire, the unspoken threat of being burned and suffocated in the name of initiation. Then I smelled the smoke from up above and my fear fell away from me like a dropped coat; only a cigarette.

"You keeping track of the time?" I asked, thinking of nothing better to say, just wanting to talk. Hear my voice. "It's too dark down here for me to see my watch."

"I'm keepin' track," he said. "Don't worry. I'm here. I'll let you out when the time comes."

So, I waited and fidgeted, danced my feet like I had to pee even though I didn't have to go at all, checked around with my hands, slapping the walls so as to define the perimeters of my temporary prison to my own blind satisfaction in case anyone asked me what initiation was all about. The walls were cold and clammy, made of brick as far as I could tell. There was a ladder of protruding brick-ends at the center of one wall for easy access to the floor a few feet above my head. The pit, as I called the place to myself, was too small for anything else than a secret storage space for some ultra-secret weapon. I called up to Joe to ask if this was right. He said that he didn't know for sure but that my guess sounded pretty reasonable.

I let that slide and went on waiting, fidgeted some more until something caught my eye, or, at least, I thought that something did. Whatever it was, I couldn't say. It played at the corner of my eye like someone lighting a cigarette where you can just barely see the glow of the match but, as soon as I turned my head in its general direction, it just wasn't there. After this illusion or whatever it was had happened a few times, I called out and, as I yelled to Joe that there was something there down there with me, it happened again: a barely perceptible glint of light at the periphery of my vision, like holding a pocket mirror next to your eye, just out of range of full sight and then, when you turn your head to look--nothing.

"Yeah," Joe mumbled above me. "It happens like that to all of'em." I heard a creak as he must have shifted his position on the old cot and then he spit. "You got another three minutes."

In those three minutes, that flicker of light showed itself to me fast-turning-but-never-fast-enough-to-catch-it line of sight and disappeared at least another ten times. My eyes had begun to sting with the effort to find out what it was, but I never did. When I heard the trap door creak open, I was glad for it, so jumpy that I felt about able to crawl up one of those walls without the help of that ladder of protruding bricks.

"Come on," Joe's voice said in the dark surprisingly close above me. "Gimme your hand."

"What?"

"Your hand. Give it to me. I'll give you a boost out of there."

"It's still so dark," I said. "Light a match so I can see you."

"Just used the last one," he said and, for some reason, it sounded like a lie. I raised up my left hand while climbing up the ladder of bricks. I waved my hand frantically in fear of losing my balance and falling back into the pit. Joe's soft, warm hand wrapped around my wrist and slowly hoisted me out of the claustrophobic hole. 'that's the way," I heard him say, the steam of his breath in my face. "'At's right. "You're doin' just fine, Janie."

Then I was out, initiation over. I felt Joe's arm about my waist, felt him kiss my cheek for congratulations and he let me go. I jumped at the sound of the trap door banging closed. I moved around, stumbling on pebbles in the dark, feeling the trap door tremble under my weight and I chuckled. "I didn't know it took so long for your eyes to get used to the dark," I said.

"They're about as used to it as they're goin' to get," he said and, taking me by the hand, led me over to a pile of folded, stacked cardboard onto which he lowered me until I was sitting, landing on my rear with a jolt.

"What do you mean, 'as used to it as they're going to get'?"

Joe laughed, short and growling, a cruel sound that made me feel stupid and which renewed my fear, "Just what it means," he said with a pat to my leg. "You're blind now, don't you know?"

I gasped. "For good?"

"Naw, just for a week or so like you heard me tell that other kid." There came a caterwauling screech of the army cot again as he dragged and shoved it back into place over the trap door covered initiation hole. I shivered where I sat on the stack of flattened cardboard boxes.

"An' that's what 'nitiation's all about," he said as he grabbed my arms to haul me to my feet. He laughed again as he gave me a quick, playful slap on my butt. "Or hadn't you heard?"


THE END


2016 Stephen Faulkner

Bio: Mr. Faulkner is a former college administrator who is now honing his writing craft. He looks forward to sharing his stories with those who appreciate his singular style and point of view. His most recent Aphelion appearance was Sex in the Afterlife in our February 2015 issue.

E-mail: Stephen Faulkner

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