"You know, at any given time approximately 104 mass murderers are running around the U.S." My best friend Suzanne paused dramatically, then continued. "Most will kill between twenty to eighty people before they get apprehended."
I tried to be subtle as I gently pulled the large machete from Suzanne's callused hands and slipped the blade into its khaki colored waterproof canvas sheath. It was longer than my arm.
"Suzanne, what do you need this for?" I repeated. "We're starting high school next week, not a combat mission!"
The clerk at the army surplus store, dressed in fatigues cut slightly too large for his frame, perhaps to conceal his civilian belly bulge, yelled, "Hey Hagen Junior, you hear lately from your daddy?"
"He's keeping the peace in Korea these days. If Mom gets the phone or the mail before me and there's any message from him, she deep sixes it stat. I'm the son he always wanted but never had and daughter that's all she's got left since her old man took off for foreign shores leaving her, shall we say, in a family way."
"I met your ma once. She doesn't seem like Hunk Hagen's type. Kinda frilly, ya know?"
"If abortion was legal in ’66, 1 wouldn't be standing here in combat boots. She reminds me every time she's ticked off with me."
"Well, Hagen Junior, ya gonna introduce me to your friends?"
"Sure!" Suzanne said, pushing me forward like a rack of beef in a butcher's freezer. "This is Sandy. Our moms were best friends in high school, like us since birth. Angel's in the alteration room trying on combat clothes. Sandy, this here's Grunt. He served with my dad in Vietnam but went civilian soon as the war ended and washed up in this backwater town, ’cuz Dad told him how great it is here. Not that Dad believed it, in light of the fact he booked when I birthed. The Hills is great, only compared to Saigon, Beirut or Seoul."
I wasn't sure whether to shake Grunt's hand. I hate the smell of army surplus stores, that odor of iron, oil and steel but Suzanne says it is the scent of her absent father and if someone could put it in a liquid and siphon it into a bottle and get Avon ladies to sell it, she would wear makeup. Sometimes I don't know about Suzanne.
In life you get some friends because you're so much like them and they're so much like you but Suzanne is the kind of friend you inherit when you're too young.
As I backed off from the half salute and half extended hand of Suzanne's old childhood connection to her paternal half, she leaned closer to him and mumbled. Grunt hung the machete on the wall, then leaned under the counter and smacked five ammunition boxes down.
Suzanne shrugged. "I need a bullet. You can never be too careful."
"She's right," Grunt said. "It's a sick world. Been so since the start of time. But I can't sell you bullets until you turn 18."
I shuddered. Images flashed in my mind of neighbors with rifles loaded and cocked, standing at their windows, each gun aimed across the street at the other. I didn't share belief in Suzanne's fear of mass murderers or domestic insurrections. In 1982, lawless or violent kids just stole watermelons from in front of the grocery store, or put bees in glass jars with water, and shook the jars to drive the bees crazy. It didn't get worse than that in our little town. People only hurt each other accidentally in The Hills.
"If you knew what goes on in other countries ... hell no — just in other U.S. CITIES! You wouldn't be so cocky, young miss," Grunt said to me, licking an oil stained thumb as he flipped his inventory list to the next page. He shoved the bullets under the counter and crouched down opening a locked case to touch and count knives, some with handles cut like brass knuckles, which I'm sure are illegal in Michigan.
"Yes, in the civilian world serial killers and other stuff destroys anyone weak," Suzanne said. "Anyone not watching for trouble. You gotta be prepared for ANYTHING!"
"My mom's bumper sticker says, 'Did you hug your kid today?' If you two made bumper stickers it would say, 'Have you cocked your gun today? Have you tested your ammo? Have you concealed your weapons?" I said, trying to make my voice sound cool and not nervous, not like my heart fluttered in my chest cavity. Levity is my weapon.
"Yeah, well, your world is divided between the jocks, frats, fats, fluffs, jerks and jokers. l know all about that. Was young once myself, and most of those types come in here sooner or later for something. Suzanne's a special one. Not any type at all, this one is. Sometimes I think instead of getting born, the military just hatched her. You know, as an experiment or something. What type are you, Sandy? I can't quite figure. You dress like a fluff but a fluff wouldn't go slumming with Suzanne or any similar hatchling. You know that old saying about birds in a sweater . . ."
"I'm a sped kid," I said, self-conscious and shy and sorry I was born. It's like admitting you've got something wrong with you, saying you're inferior. Sped kids, that's for "special education," are confined to one hallway of our school, grouped with kids who have learning disabilities (me), emotional problems (Suzanne), low I.Q.'s and bad tempers, as if we're all the same and not fit to mingle, except one or two classes a day when we go to classrooms of non-disadvantaged peers for "mainstreaming." Since everybody knows what hallway we came from, only a few, like Secret, will talk to sped kids, so we are singled out until brought into the greater assembly for more specialized mistreatment.
"Spud kid? A potato kid?" Grunt said, his fat lips vibrating and spitting.
"Special education," Suzanne said. "If she was a guy and there was a war, poor Sandy would be draft exempt for six reasons."
Mumbling as if he didn't hear Suzanne, Grunt continued, "Serial killers choose a type. Pretty girls with brown hair, or old ladies who look like mama. Good girls or bad girls but usually girls. Son of Sam liked couples. The Boston Strangler preferred housewives. The real sickos like kiddies. How old are you?"
"I think someone washed your brain and left it paranoid," I said. His beady eyes glittered and glistened as the cloth in front of the dressing room opened and Angel appeared, one limb at a time.
Angel rolled the bottom of a khaki shirt up, turning it into a T-top which bared her tanned midriff. She rolled up the base of the khaki shorts so when she leaned, every inch of shapely legs showed, the shape enhanced by the contrast of big chunky combat boots. Her red hair burst like flames from under an army helmet. She looks six years older than her age, and she grabs the best of both worlds and twists it to her advantage. Six years between actual and appears to be is referred to as "jail bait."
Customers stared. Grunt snorted. Suzanne said, "Hold it guys! She's 14." To us she said, "At least it's better than that colored leather stuff she usually prefers."
Suzanne asked to see the machete again, while I argued it was too big and bulky to carry in hallways fashionably, and if some psycho teenager got hold of it, he could kill a lot of classmates and it would be Suzanne's fault for providing the weapon.
Angel wandered through the army surplus store humming Elton John's "Little Jeannie." Soon a tall swarthy army vet was explaining the seven uses of a metal army helmet — to sit on, step on, hold food, protect head, keep head out of mud while lying outdoors, etc. etc.
"Is Nickodemas here?" Suzanne asked. Nickodemas was the son of Grunt, and a jock at the high school. Grunt laughed. "Yeah, Nick's in back preparing a little surprise. Your daddy figured the best way to get a gift to you was by sending it to us. So nice we thought we'd keep it if you didn't know it was coming but we can't cheat you, Hagen Junior."
Nick came onto the floor yanking an army foot locker in one hand and carrying a box in the other. He dropped the footlocker in front at Suzanne's feet. Small white stenciled letters spelled, "To Suzanne Hagen, aka Hagen Jr., c/o Grunt's Army Supply." Inside she found a note, "Play it safe and smart in your new school and remember the ways of a soldier." The locker contained a knitted stocking cap, two sets of dog tags with her name imprinted on them, a canteen, rations, candy bars, a book about wilderness survival, signed by the author, smoke canister flares, a submersible military watch, and a compass.
"No infrared camera?" Suzanne said, as if disappointed. But I think really she had greater respect for tears shed over wanting something you don't get as opposed to tears of sentimentality and gratitude which was probably the real well her eye water, as she refers to tears, sprang from that day.
Tears formed in the midst of Angel's turquoise-colored eyes too, enhancing the natural luminosity of her cheek as one slid down. "This is so romantic, in a daddy sort of way," Angel said softly. "Maybe the red camera is in the box."
Suzanne sniffed at the box, then put it to her ear. "No bombs, sounds like not. I trust you check everything that comes here, right, Grunt? In event of terrorist attack or military invasion, this would be the first place for the unarmed to come to purchase protection, making this store a target for anyone planning attack."
Suzanne snipped the string, then tore at the cardboard while everyone watched. Paranoia generates its own excitement, I thought, wishing she'd hurry up and get us out of this place. To fill my Back to School Shopping List, we needed to hit the mall running. Unlike the items on Suzanne's list (M 80, bobby socks, teargas, lipgloss, grenades, Jordache jeans and a pair of khaki leg warmers) the competition would be keen for mine.
I wanted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a few Izod tops, at least one pair of Nikes, new pens, pencils, notebooks, a hand-crafted leather carrier to organize everything. I believe in marching into hell in style. Just because I'm a sped kid doesn't mean I have to look like one. Or so I thought my freshman year, the first year of high school. And in those days you couldn't just buy jeans off the rack to wear. You had to soak new jeans in water hot as you could stand it, while you wore them in the bathtub until they shrank to fit. I had to iron my hair to make it perfectly straight too.
My self-absorption was interrupted by the oohhs and ahhhs as Suzanne liberated another gift from the shredded Korean newspapers it came wrapped in. It looked old and ugly, but Angel slid her fingers over the sleeve as if it was fur and Suzanne bawled unabashed. Grunt explained it was an authentic Bomber jacket from World War II, probably belonging to the grandfather she never met. Small cracks appeared where age ripped at the leather a bit. The inside was flannel, a map of some part of Europe I never heard of or maybe I did hear of it but in a mainstreamed class where my mind was on humiliation and endurance instead of the drone of information.
It was filled with hidden pockets, even pockets inside of pockets, and in one Suzanne found a check made out to her in the amount of $400, about $360 more than any of us were ever allowed to spend without a parent watching. And a note which read, "to my daughter who I love, hoping this makes you feel safe when you're scared. It's stopped a bullet or two in its time, love your dad, Guy Zechariah Hagen, Jr.
"Mom's gonna kill me! She'll want to know where this stuff came from," Suzanne said.
"Naw, she's too busy with her new job," Angel said. "Like, anybody's gonna spend money to come to a gym and do aerobics and women are gonna lift weights any way. Fer sher not! But she won't notice if you come riding home in an army tank."
"Besides, it's Thursday and the mall's open ’til nine tonight, which means we can shop," I said.
"Yeah, let's drop this stuff off on the way there," Suzanne said. "It will just blend with the rest of my combat equipment." She folded up the coat and zipped it gently like a mother zipping a baby's snowsuit.
Grunt's son Nick smiled at Suzanne and said, "I've got a prize for you too, kid. From my old man and me to the chip off a very special block." Nick opened Suzanne's hand and dropped a pin into it that said "Suns and Stars" in Latin.
We turned to leave the store but suddenly Suzanne ran back to the counter. "I DO need that jungle machete," she said. Please wrap it and add it to the rest of my items."
"Suzanne! What about psycho students? I thought we decided this was too dangerous for you to take to school."
"Oh, I've got tear gas for protection at school. I'm getting the machete you know for a back up plan." I shook my head at her like my mom at me when I mismatch my school colors.
All of us grabbed packages to carry to Angel's parents' car. Suzanne brandished the machete like a pirate. "I need this to improve the quality of my life," she added.
As expected, the guy Angel had been talking to paid for the clothes she didn't want to change out of. Nick and Suzanne exchanged a guy-to-guy type hug. Angel and her benefactor hugged.
Once outside the store, we squealed and giggled like girls do on the final days of summer in that limbo between girlhood and womanhood. Suzanne said, "I wish I could meet a mass murderer some day. I'd be all ready for him! Just let one come anywhere near our town!"
She never dreamed, none of us did, that the mass murderer had already arrived. And he wasn't happy as he watched us unloading combat gear into the car, bringing it onto turf he had just come to claim as his own.