The Influentialists

The place was decorated like your grandma’s kitchen.  That was the point.  That’s why they called it “Granny’s Diner.”  As you forked into your soggy pancakes, you looked at all the Amish quilts hanging on the wall, all the flimsy wooden shelves holding antique windup toys and Norman Rockwell paintings, and found it hard to believe that you were willing to do it even here.  Not even this, the quaintest, most wholesome place in the entire city could stop you.

You looked at Max across from you.  He hung his head low over the table, shoveled his toast in under his eggs and lifted.  You watched his long, heavy-metal hair as it dangled over the slimy yellow yoke on his plate.  You sat right against the window.  The sun, spreading bright and thick through the glass, made you squint the entire meal.  Max finished chewing, dabbed the peach fuzz above his mouth with his napkin, and slid across the seat.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” he said.  “You know what to do.”

When Max stood up his knee knocked the table and the dishes clanged.  It drew attention to him, made him look even bigger and more menacing than he already was.  He lumbered toward the back and you sat there, sipping your coffee, wiping your hands, trying to look as normal as possible.  The waitress put the check in front of you and you smiled.  You might have even said thank you, but you don’t remember.  You do remember how the breakfast felt in your gut, weighing on top of all that gin and cocaine from the night before.  You felt it sagging there, laden and stagnant as a warm swamp.

You were sitting there, clenching, trying not to puke or shit your pants.  You were thinking about how you were supposed to meet up with Jay later to watch the Bears game, and you didn’t know if you could stomach one more beer.  It was then that you saw Max approaching the exit.  He swung the door open and stepped through it.  He gave you his notorious arched eyebrow as he passed by the window and you left the check on the table, spun out of the booth, and traced his path. 

Outside you both walked like you were racing to Max’s car.  Under your breath you whispered, “hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry…” A few paces from the car you heard Max say, “Oh shit,” and you turned around to see a squat Mexican man in a bulky pair of stretch pants, a large white apron and a hairnet.  He was maybe a block away, charging, swearing at you in Spanish.  Max reached the car first and now you were talking out loud: “Hurry hurry hurry!”  Max was trying to untangle his keys, and then he was trying to put them in the lock but it wasn’t working.  His fingers had turned to putty or the door had melted off, or something, you don’t know what, but now the Mexican was gaining; he was sixty feet away, and he was slipping his hand inside his apron and pulling out a metal spatula.  He hoisted it above his head like an axe and you saw that it was sharp like an axe and the blade was wide and smooth, so shiny against the sun it was glowing.  He was slashing it back and forth through the air and Max dropped his keys.

“Fuck,” Max said, very calm and matter-of-fact, “I’m going to have to punch him.”

And you thought, yes, shit, do it, there’s no other option.  Jesus, how did you get here?  You were going to have to beat this poor, fat, random Mexican.  You couldn’t do anything about it, and what the hell did that say about you?

And then it happened.  It was taken care of for you.  The Mexican didn’t see the curb coming and as he stepped off of it he went down, fast and hard like somebody had pushed him, and he shriveled up into a heap.  He dropped the spatula and grabbed his knee.  He was baying like a wounded dog, and you stood there with Max, your fists still raised, and you watched the Mexican squirm there, writhing and moaning, and you knew something huge had just happened.

But you should stop here.  You should really rewind, back up and try to explain what happened.


It looked like Max and Jay were spending the night again.  They were sitting in your living room, panting and sweating, popping beer cans and chain smoking.  You were sitting on the coffee table, folding your arm in half, pulling your elbow up to your mouth and licking off some of the blood that was dripping from it.  You kept looking at your feet, thinking how bizarre it was that one of your sneakers was missing.  You hadn’t even noticed until you got home. 

Jay was sitting on the floor by the bookshelf, ripping pages out of the back of the bible your preachy aunt Joy and uncle Morris had given to you before you left for Chicago.  For the past few weeks you and he had been using the blank, waxy pages to roll cigarettes and joints with.  Jay spun the paper in his fingers, stuck it in his mouth and lit it.  Marijuana smoke filled the room.

Jay stood and walked the joint over to you where he handed it off in a fit of dusty coughs.  Jay was still amped way up.  He crept over to Max who was sitting next to you on the couch and stuck his forehead in Max’s face.  You knew what this meant and you braced yourself for it.  Max and Jay both reared back and then sort of drifted toward each other with their eyes closed until their heads smacked.  “Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” they both hollered as their heads snapped back.  They were knocking it loose, the adrenaline, the testosterone, the angst, whatever it was.  Max tossed his elbow up on the coffee table and Jay mirrored the move.  They both crouched over the table, locked hands, gritted teeth.  They wanted to know if you could make room for their match, scootch your ass out of the way, so you slid down a little.

“Relax, buttheads,” you said.  “Maybe this’ll calm you down.”  You took another puff from the joint and blew it in their faces.  It worked.  They unclasped their hands, made goofy, cartoon smiles, smacked their lips, breathed deeply.  Jay grabbed it out of your hand.

“Dude, what did you do to your arm?” he asked.  He brought the joint to his mouth and inhaled hard.  Jay was your best friend.  He was small and compact with knobby arms and legs and a wiry frame.  Despite his diminutive stature, you’d never met anyone who could drink or eat or throw a punch like he could.  He was the smartest guy you’d ever known, which a lot of people found hard to believe but was totally true (you once saw him memorize three long Whitman poems in one drunken sitting).  He was also, by far, the biggest asshole you’d ever known.  Everybody always wanted to know why you were friends with someone like him, and that was exactly why you were.  Nobody like him had ever wanted to know you before.

“Cut it on the fence, remember?” You said.

“Oh, yeah, right,” Jay said, “You couldn’t climb it!”

“I had to grab him by the waist and launch him over!” Max said, laughing, whipping his hair back.

“I lost my shoe,” you said, “I couldn’t get any leverage.”

“You got enough leverage when you body slammed that one dude,” Max said.

“That was pretty awesome,” Jay said.  He stood up and did a wild imitation of you picking the guy up and throwing him to the street.  He handed you the joint again.

“It was mostly reflex,” you said, smiling as you took a long drag.

You both looked over at Max who was now splayed out on the couch, lounging happily.  “You really wailed on that guy, Max,” Jay said.  “You popped his nose like a cherry tomato.  Just wham!  And then booooosh,” he said, taking his fingers and making a spraying motion from his nose, “blood everywhere.”

Max started to laugh.  His large, bulbous belly shook.  “He was such a fucking yuppie,” Max said. 

You laughed.  You all laughed.  It was four in the morning and everyone was getting their second wind.  Nothing sobered a person faster than a good brawl.  You looked at your elbow and remembered how it had scraped the asphalt as you slammed the guy to the ground, how his body had pinned your elbow underneath and how you had to pull it out before he got a good shot on you.  You hadn’t bled like this since junior high, maybe since football practice or playing basketball in the driveway with your Dad.  This blood felt different, like a purging or a cleansing, like out with the old sissy blood from your past and in with the new turbo charged stuff.  It made you feel like growling.  It made you feel invincible, like not even blood could stop you, and if that was the case, then nothing could, and you licked at it some more, partly because it was about to spill onto the carpet and partly to show off.  You were constantly trying to prove yourself.  You always felt like the one imposter in the group.  Because how could you belong here, leaking blood, opening beers with your teeth, roughing up guys in filthy alleyways and torching bibles?  You couldn’t possibly.  In your previous life as a Catholic school kid from farm-town Pennsylvania, you were the captain of your little league baseball team, you went to church camp every year, you were still a virgin.

“Hey!” Max said.  He shot up from the couch and thrust his finger in the air.  “I’m hungry.  Let’s hit up the Nugget.  Dine and dash!”

You and Jay agreed.  You hopped up and leapt out the door, grunting and whooping extra loud.  You can’t remember if you were literally pounding your chest and howling at the moon, but it felt like that.  You did feel like a wolf-gorilla mix. 


You met Jay and Max at Columbia College.  They were both fiction writing majors like you.  But they were not like writers you’d met in high school.  Jay and Max bought cocaine from tweaked-out crackheads under the El stop at Morse Avenue, taught you how to snort it through a broken ballpoint pen.  They taught you how to shatter car windows with chips of porcelain from an old spark plug.  They showed you how to steal furniture from people’s front yards, snatch food from 7-11 anytime you felt like it and hold your liquor longer and better than just about anyone this side of Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski was one of their favorite writers.  If you asked them why they picked fights with unsuspecting strangers outside bars in Lincoln Park, they’d tell you that Bukowski would have done it.  Bukowski was a mean S.O.B, they said.  They told you that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were boxers and that so were Jimmy Cannon and Norman Mailer, and they told you that none of them liked yuppies.  A lot of the destructive stuff you did was aimed at yuppies.  Yuppies were the anti-artists, the enemies.  They stood for greed and mindlessness, conformity and corporate takeover.  That’s why they said it was okay to smash the windows on their shitty Hummers, take their car stereos and stupid GPS trackers and piss all over their precious rose bushes.  It was okay to provoke them, crush pumpkins on their porch and throw birdseed on their lawn.  If they had the guts to react, if the yuppies stepped to you, which was what Max and Jay really hoped for, it was acceptable to choke their lights out or take your fist to their fragile glass jaw.

Max and Jay told you that if you wanted to be a great writer you’d have to go on dangerous adventures like a writer, lead a daring, bold life filled with moments rich for story telling, and you believed them.  You thought about what they said every time you ran from every scene of every crime.  You were a fleeing writer in training, not just some hopped up hooligan punk.  You were a revolutionary on a mission, not a spoiled, hypocritical white kid with a sense of entitlement.  Because really, you were too old for that sophomoric bullshit.  You were twenty-two years old.  But they had you.  Max and Jay knew they had you.  They knew that if they told you that becoming a great writer meant biting the head off of a rattlesnake, you’d have done it without asking any questions.


What would your mother think?  What would she do if you had to call her from a police station at 5 am for bail?   She wouldn’t believe it was you.  Even after she came down to the station and saw you she wouldn’t believe her eyes.  You’d have to show her the birthmark on the back of your neck, reveal to her your favorite food as a child, make her remember the Christmas you bought her a kitten and she loved it so much she cried like a two year old.

God is the answer.  That’s what your mom would tell you.  Say your Hail Marys and Our Fathers, confess your sins.  But God didn’t do it for you anymore.  You weren’t afraid of him like you used to be.  Part of the reason you went on those rampages was to break free from the foolish restrictions that religion had placed on you as a kid.  You didn’t want to be controlled.  When you thought about God you felt nothing anymore.  You felt air, emptiness, absence.  If anything, part of your anger came from all the years you were suckered into believing in the first place. 

If your sister knew what you were doing she would pull the karma card on you.  Your sister was older than you and different in drastic, innumerable ways.  She lived in Tahoe.  She burned incense, wore Indian beaded necklaces, read tarot cards.  She believed in the healing power of crystals, yoga and transcendental meditation.  You couldn’t relate to her, never had been able to, but the idea of karma was something that had been weighing on you.  Karma made more sense to you than God.  You’d moved your spiritual worry from the fear of hell to eternally bad karma.  From time to time you lay awake at night wondering if you would have to pay for all of your bad deeds.  Your time as a thief and an outlaw was coming to an end, you could feel it, and what bothered you sometimes was that you’d never been punished for any of it.  Maybe it was your Catholic guilt complex.  Maybe you were a closet masochist, but it felt wrong.  It was a miracle that you’d never been arrested.  Nobody had ever beaten you up for anything, run you down in their car or vandalized your apartment.  Sometimes you think revenge would have felt comforting, reassuring.  Maybe then you could have stopped feeling so God damn lousy about all the rotten shit you’d done.  In any event, you’d started feeling less and less like yourself, and you had no idea who or what that was anymore.

You decided to tell Max and Jay about how you’d been feeling.  You told them that you’d been having nightmares about the last hit you pulled, the one where you threw a massive rock through the back windshield of a random Honda Civic.  A Civic.  That owner probably wasn’t a yuppie, you told them.  It wasn’t even a new car.  That dude was going to have one of the worst mornings of his entire life.  Max told you that he knew how you felt.  He thought those same things sometimes too, but he always convinced himself that in the end he was doing the right thing. 

“What if,” Max asked, “the guy who owned the Honda had his own bad karma that needed to be equalized?  What if we’re doing karma’s dirty work?  You don’t know.  We could be the Robin Hoods of karma.”

“The karma disciples?” you asked.

“Totally,” he said.

“Well, technically,” Jay said, “the word ‘disciple’ refers to a learner or follower. The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent out.’  So, actually, we’re more like apostles.”  He chuckled a little bit, nervously; then he paused, looked back down at whatever book he had, and continued reading.  “Apostles who give people the worst day of their lives,” he mumbled.  A long silence followed.  Jay kept reading, although it seemed to you he was merely staring at the pages, and Max was picking at a loose piece of rubber on the bottom of his boot.  All the air had gone out of the room. They were afraid to look you in the eye for fear you might notice the cracks each of them felt slithering through their own crumbling resolve.  The tension was broken when Max stood up from the couch, belched, and teetered into the kitchen to retrieve another beer.


The Mexican cook was still rolling around on the sidewalk, grabbing at his knee and hissing with pain.  It seemed like you and Max stood there for hours, watching the guy cycle through the various stages of agony and humiliation.  And then it hit you.  You could take this time to turn yourself around.  Right now you could reach out and help this man to his feet.  You could carry him in your arms to the hospital and wait for him as they wrapped his dangling leg in a hard plastic cast.  You could beg for his forgiveness, pay him back the money you gypped from his place of business, from the waitstaff he felt such loyalty toward, from his hard-earned tips you cut into time and time again, and you could send him away with extra fare for his bus ride home.

In a rush of inspiration you leaned toward him and offered your hand.  He barked something at you in Spanish, stabbed the air with his spatula, fending you off with all he had left.  You jerked back and before you could make another gesture, Max was shouting at you to get the fuck in the car.  He clamped his hand around your wrist and yanked.  “What the fuck are you doing?  Are you crazy?”  But you weren’t going to be restrained.  You were in one of those moods again, pumped full of panic and high on your newfound bravado.  Unstoppable.  Invincible.  You tore away from his grasp and sprinted east down Diversey Avenue.  Your lungs filled with a sharp gush of air and you felt your throat tighten.  You were heaving already but feeling strong.  You wouldn’t stop until you hit Lake Michigan and after that you weren’t sure.  You wanted to run fast enough to outrun all your ruthless acts, all the mistakes and indiscretions, the karma and anger and regret.  You ran the way Max and Jay had taught you, serpentine style like a rabbit, always dodging in case of gun shots, hurled rocks or overzealous heroes.  You’d call them later and thank them.  You’d thank them for the crash course in street smarts, yes, but you’d thank them mostly for the memories.  You were on the run again, trying to capture the sights and sounds of your escape, the suck of wind peeling back your hair, the hard thump of your shoes striking pavement, the way the trees bent and swayed around you… because by God you’d use this later.  Fuck it all, they were right.  You’d use this some day.