The Seventh Level
Note: It's not often that a tale, even while repelling
me, grabs ahold of me and compels me to read it through.
The portrait of Kerr is sharply drawn and holds one's
interest, even though he's a revolting excuse for a human
The screen door creaked and groaned, its old wooden joints
complaining about the musty, damp breath of the drizzly
evening. He leaned into it harder, popping it open with
an almost imperceptible shove. Lighting his smoke, he
sauntered out onto the porch, yawning and stretching,
his Army surplus boots hitting the wooden floor with a
dull thud, a heavy, ominous sound that seemed to flatten
out and circle him, going nowhere in particular. He held
the door open as wide as possible before letting it slam,
to make a bigger bang.
Watch that damn door!” From the kitchen, a high-pitched
woman’s voice cut through the game show shit droning
on the TV. “I just got the friggin’ landlord
to fix it!”
A young voice sassed back. “Wasn’t me! It
was Uncle Kerry!”
“I don’t care! Just don’t do it again!”
His sister, older by ten years, always had the last word,
especially when she was drunk. She’d started on
the vodka early tonight; she’d be passed out by
He inhaled, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, and
stretched again, exhaling. Everywhere he looked, he saw
grey. The porch was the same industrial grey as the floor
in the landlord’s machine shop. Film from the smokestacks
upriver coated the once-white bungalows across the street.
The sky was overcast, fading into a dreary night. He felt
himself sliding into a black mood, which he didn’t
want to do. It was Saturday night, and he didn’t
have to get up the next morning at five to be at the bakery
by six to sweep floors and wash dishes for the bakers
and the lady who decorated cakes.
He turned around, hopping up to sit on the porch rail.
His nephew, Danny, hovered in the doorway.
goin’ out tonight?”
Sure.” Kerr blew three perfect smoke rings, showing
off. He knew Danny secretly practiced them under the bathroom
come you never, like, bring home a girl?”
Kerr choked mid-ring, the smoke rushing out through his
nose and he began to laugh. Girls were something you had
in the back of somebody’s car or outside somewhere,
behind a few bushes. He was usually too buzzed to remember
what they looked like, and they were so full of beer they’d
almost pass out as soon as he got them on their backs.
Mom always brings home a boyfriend, whenever she goes
Kerr settled against the post. “That’s ‘cause
she thinks she needs somebody. Anyway, the more time she
spends in the sack, the less she spends with the her pal
Stoly.” He blew another smoke ring, wondering if
there was any hope for the kid, sure that he could not
have been so dumb at his age. Danny looked like he was
about to say something else, but he was interrupted by
someone coming up the sidewalk.
Docs!” Danny stepped part way out of the screen
door to get a better look, still clinging to the handle.
Kerr looked down at the new black boots on the visitor.
“Not bad.” He nodded approvingly. “Where’d
they come from?”
nice lady left this behind at the restaurant.” Buzz
produced a fancy designer wallet from his jacket with
a flourish. “It was real heavy, so I lightened it
for her.”He grinned, adding an eyebrow move that
made him look like a tattooed Curly.
kept it? What for?”
it’s really expensive. Thought your sister would
“No fucking way.” Kerr tossed his butt on
not? She might like a young stud.” He shuffled his
new boots, a hangdog look on his face.
would. But it’d make me puke.” He took the
wallet from Buzz’s hand and gave it to Danny. “Give
this to Maggie.”
Buzz shrugged. “Some.”
Kerr jumped off the railing and zipped his leather. “Good.
You can buy.”
who’s out there?” His sister’s voice
trailed them down the sidewalk, piercing the neighborhood
din and making the stubble on the nape of his neck stand
The kid sounded sad. “They’re gone already.”
The old Town Car with the crumbling fenders waited for
them half a block down the street. Buzz’s father
must be out playing poker, or else his mother wouldn’t
dare give him her car. They picked up Gunner at the corner,
just coming out of the tattoo parlor.
bitch!” He slammed the rear door of the car as he
got in, his big frame looking cramped. His skin was red
across his cheeks and on the back of his neck, halfway
up his scalp. “Bitch won’t give me a tattoo!”
knows?! I mean, I offer to work around the place for her,
tryin’ to make a deal. I almost have her talked
into it, too, then she asks me what kind of tattoo I want.
I show her this spider web, and she starts lookin’
me up and down. What do I know? Maybe it turns her on
or something. But then she starts screamin’ at me,
only half of it in fuckin’ English. Something about
her husband gettin’ killed in prison by some gang.”
you got her excited, all right,” Buzz quipped.
Gunner reached up front and gave Buzz a smack, just below
I’m drivin’ here!”
she keeps goin’ on and on, and I don’t know
what she’s saying, except that she’s pushin’
me out the door. So I tell her she can just eat me, then
I bend over and blast her one right in the face.”
Gunner lifted one leg and let loose a thunderous fart,
then sat back in the seat, his arms folded across his
chest. “Fuckin’ bitch!”
“Since when is there a broad in there?” Kerr
had hung out there a couple of years ago, when it was
run by a guy named Leo, an ex-merchant marine.
Maybe six months.”
a squaw? Good thing you didn’t try to screw her.”
Buzz pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store
with bars on the windows. The old guy who ran the place
was afraid of them, so he never asked for ID. “You’d
have been dickless real quick.” He got out, then
leaned back in the driver’s window. “Now,
be good while I’m gone, kids. And if you see any
Tontos, Pakis, or niggers...Run ‘em over!”
Jeers and belches followed Buzz into the store, turning
to cheers and whoops a couple of minute later when he
came back with a bottle of cheap whisky and a case of
They drove around, drinking beer and listening to the
radio, looking for something to do. After a couple of
beers, Buzz started to talk about some book he was reading.
It sounded like all the other books he read. This one
was about people from the third world plotting to get
in the country as refugees, then have tons of kids and
take over and kill white people. Kerr didn’t care.
Most of the shit Buzz read was crazy, and he didn’t
want to think. It was Saturday night, and they had a car
and booze. All they needed was a party.
An hour later, over half the case was gone. They’d
coasted into a rich part of town where the streets were
lined with high walls and fences, and through the wrought
iron gates they could only catch glimpses of big houses
presiding at the ends of long driveways. They turned onto
a street that led down to a cul-de-sac. At the end, one
of the gates stood open. They slowed down as they approached.
Light spilled out of the windows of the house, and small
white lights lined the driveway. A guy in windbreaker
and tie stood near the front door, and past him waited
a couple of limos and twenty or thirty expensive European
cars, parked in tidy rows on the lawn. They stopped outside
Buzz tapped the gas and nosed the ancient Lincoln through
the entrance. Its springs screeched.
Kerr nearly jumped out of his seat. “What the fuck’re
“Goin’ to a party.” Buzz stared straight
ahead, determined, steering the car up the driveway. Inside
the house, they could see people wearing suits and evening
We’re gonna get bus-ted! My old man says if he has
to bail me one more time, I’m outta the house.”
Buzz! Let’s get the fuck outta here!” They
were nearing the front steps, and Kerr could see the valet
lift a walkie-talkie. “There’s nothin’
in there! Let’s go downtown!”
Buzz didn’t have a chance to say anything. In less
than a second, three men in dark suits swarmed the car.
Buzz hit the brakes. The car doors flew open and Kerr
felt himself being hauled out by the collar.
Someone pushed him against the car.
on the hood and spread ‘em.”
He followed orders. Across from him, Buzz was doing the
same, but his face was red and twisted, like he was about
“Clean.” The voice came from behind him, echoed
by another to his left.
boys. Time to see some ID.” A black cop, the one
who’d frisked Buzz, did the talking. He flashed
a badge. “I’m Sergeant Walker, and these are
officers Raczka and Chin. Now, let’s have the license
Buzz crawled across the front seat and reached into the
glove box for the registration while the cop who’d
frisked Kerr gathered licenses. The third cop shined his
flashlight in the back seat and confiscated the remains
of the case of beer, then flashed it quickly across the
front seat and the ashtray.
The sergeant looked over Buzz’s license, then the
registration. “So, you got your momma’s car
Buzz didn’t answer. The cop looked at him, waiting.
Buzz still didn’t answer. He tapped Buzz’s
license against his flashlight. Another long minute went
by until finally—
Buzz’s voice was full of disgust.
right answer is ‘Yes sir.’”
A fourth man in a dark suit came up. Even out of uniform,
it was easy to tell he was military.
sir. Just some curious kids.”
The military man looked them over. He curled his upper
lip slightly and sniffed. “Well, move ‘em
along. Quickly.” He spun around on his heel and
The sergeant shrugged. “It’s your lucky night,
ladies. Personally, I’d love run you in for trespassing
and underage drinking, but the governor’s security
chief doesn’t want Mrs. Gershenson’s party
ruined over a couple of punks. So, you get a break tonight.”
He handed Buzz’s license and the registration back.
“Don’t waste it.”
The three cops watched them turn around and drive back
out to the street. Once outside the front gate, Buzz slammed
it in low gear and punched the gas, burning rubber up
the street. The Lincoln shuddered under the strain. Kerr
watched in the rear view mirror, expecting to see flashing
lights, but none appeared.
When they rounded the corner, Buzz lost it. He went crazy,
pounding the steering wheel and screaming “A nigger!
A nigger!” over and over. “That nigger had
his hands on me! All over me!” He let go of the
wheel and turned into a wild man, beating imaginary bugs
off his thighs. Kerr dove for the wheel to keep the car
on the road.
it, for fuck’s sake!”
Buzz snatched the wheel again, his muscles rigid. “Jesus
fucking Christ! A nigger had his hands on my cock!”
he probably...” Gunner started, but Kerr cut him
off with a look. Gunner changed course. “But look
what they didn’t find.” He pulled out his
pack of smokes and dug his index finger far into the back
corner, producing a joint.
Just waitin’ for the right time.” Gunner lit
the joint. “Good thing all those cops were looking
for was guns.”
say.” Kerr took the joint from Gunner. “And
what happened to the bottle?”
your seat,” Buzz sounded a little better. Getting
away with a couple of things took the edge off. Kerr felt
around under his seat and found the whisky.
fuckin’ coon,” Buzz said.
They drove around for another hour, smoking Gunner’s
joints and passing the bottle, finally winding up downtown
near Third and Bridge. By the time they got there, they
were blasted and rowdy enough that Gunner had taken a
leak out of the back window, exposing himself to passing
cars on the freeway.
They cruised up and down the Third a couple of times,
trading insults with a car full of jocks. After a while,
they parked the car on a side street, then started working
their way through the crowd.
Kerr was feeling the dope and the booze, and as they walked
down the packed sidewalks, it was hard not to bump into
bodies on all sides. The faces and the movement of the
different people around him seemed like a dream, not real
somehow. Eventually he began to roll with it.
Suddenly, he felt the soft thump of another body, the
jostling and the bodies and the swooping colors of hair
and skin and clothing stopped, and all he could see was
this girl, directly in front of him, her face filling
his entire field of vision. She was tall, a little taller
than he was, so he had to look up a bit, and she had enormous
brown eyes, dark skin, bright red lips. Kerr just stood
there, gaping, his lips parted.
you lookin’ at?” Her eyes narrowed, and she
stepped back, shifting her hips. She flicked the ash from
her cigarette and stuck it back in her mouth.
Kerr felt Buzz tugging his elbow, and vaguely realized
other people were backing away, but he was too stoned
to move. All he seemed to be able to do was stand, a bit
unsteadily, and stare.
said, what’re you lookin’ at?” She repeated
herself, louder this time, almost a shriek, cigarette
hanging from her shiny lips.
The wall of people across from him parted, and two tough-looking
blacks walked through. They were wearing the latest jock
jackets. Under one, half-zipped, Kerr saw a flash of metal.
I’m dead. I’m gonna die right here. He tried
choking down the bile trying to rise from his stomach,
his feet still glued to the sidewalk.
“Who’s botherin’ you?” One of
the black guys walked up to the woman, placing his hand
on her backside in a proprietary way. The other, the one
with the gun, stood back, his eyes on Kerr.
at that dumb fuck.” Everyone was watching now. “He
won’t stop. Dumb fuckin’ skinhead, standin’
there with his mouth open.”
Kerr closed his mouth. Her boyfriend looked at him.
botherin’ my woman?” His voice was calm. “She
says you are. Now what’m I supposed to do?”
The boyfriend stepped closer, now nose-to-nose with him.
Kerr held his gaze, but he was sure he was going to piss
himself any second. He felt something hard, a knee, smash
his groin, once, twice, then once again. He doubled over
on the sidewalk. A shoe connected with the side of his
head, and he was turned over looking up at the girl and
her boyfriend. Instinctively, he rolled up on all fours
and started to stand, but was down again with a fist to
his jaw and a couple of kicks. He stayed down. The pain
in his groin was beginning to seem real to him, no longer
kept at a distance by his altered state. It felt like
an angry flame that was slowly spreading through every
part of his being. He could hear people laughing.
Kerr didn’t dare look up. He heard the boyfriend
horking up phlegm into his mouth, then felt something
wet hit the back of his head. The laughter got louder.
The pain broke through the dope and booze fog in his head.
The boyfriend’s shoes walked away, followed by the
girl’s spikes. The laughter died down and the sidewalk
filled in with feet in all kinds and sizes of shoes. He
felt himself being lifted by his arms, and began to pant,
trying to breathe out the pain as his friends helped him
Buzz and Gunner led him to the park on the other side
of Bridge, and sat him down on a cement bench inside a
small clearing surrounded by hedges.
Nigger spit!” Buzz sounded like he was going to
hurl. Kerr tried to wipe the slimy liquid off his head,
then wiped his hand on the grass.
Kerr nodded his head. “I just gotta sit for awhile.”
know what you need.” Gunner turned and loped gracefully
across the park, returning a minute later with the rest
of the bottle. “Anesthetic.” He grinned and
held out the bottle to Kerr, who smiled weakly and took
a swig, holding his breath for a few seconds while he
waited for the pain to recede. Buzz grabbed the bottle
and tipped it back.
niggers! The next one I see, I’m gonna take out!”
Buzz was starting on to get crazy again, but Kerr didn’t
have the energy to stop him.
smokin’ crack?! You never know if they’re
in a gang, or their brother’s in a gang.”
Gunner motioned for Buzz to pass the bottle, then Kerr
did the same. He took another swig and floated away for
a few minutes, maybe longer, he wasn’t sure, on
a cloud of pain, then back again as it began to fade.
His buzz from the joint had disappeared, and as the pain
seemed to drift further from him, he began to feel something
else, something black. He slumped over, his elbows on
his knees, tired and sick and angry. His life sucked.
It had always sucked, and it wasn’t ever going to
change. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Somebody had to pay. He didn’t particularly care
who it was, or whether they deserved to pay or not. He
just wanted to make somebody pay for the shit-hole he
called his life. It was the only thing he could do.
wanna take out a slant.” He blinked, surprised.
He didn’t know where those words came from. He’d
never said or thought anything like that before. But now
that they were out, the words seemed to cruise under their
own power, taking him along for the ride. Suddenly, he
didn’t feel tired and weak and worthless anymore.
He felt big and strong, like someone to be reckoned with.
He decided to keep going, to follow the strong, powerful
feeling wherever it went, all the way to hell. He doubted
hell had anything he hadn’t already seen.
Chinks, all of ‘em. Worthless pieces of shit. Lookit
my dad. His factory moved to China, and he can’t
make half as much working two jobs now. My mom ran off
with some asshole in a Caddy. Even the house is gone.
And me, I’m gonna be moppin’ fuckin’
floors in that fuckin’ bakery the rest of my life.”
Finished, he looked up, not knowing what to think or say
or do next. Buzz nodded at him like See? It’s like
I’ve been telling you. Kerr began to understand
all the crazy shit Buzz’d been talking about since
he’d stumbled on that Web site in high school. For
the first time in his life, his rage had somewhere to
He poured the last of the whisky on the ground. Gunner
made a move forward to save it, then checked himself.
Kerr had had enough of this shit, enough of everything.
He didn’t know what was going to happen next, or
how to stop it, or if he should try. Buzz watched him
without saying anything for awhile. Nobody said anything
for a long time.
Then Buzz stood up. “Let’s go.”
Let’s go, was all he said. And they followed him.
They left the clearing and walked back along the edge
of the park, moving slowly up its length, far past the
crowd. The party spirit they’d had earlier was gone.
Now, they were looking for something else.
Buzz slowed, concentrating up a few yards ahead. Two guys
in university jackets, maybe a couple of years older than
they were, were trying to pick up a couple of girls. They
were both a little unsteady on their feet, like they weren’t
used to drinking. One of them was Asian.
The girls brushed them off, heading in the other direction.
Gunner lit a cigarette. They waited. The college boys
shrugged and headed back to their car. Without a word,
Buzz turned after them.
Kerr and Gunner followed.
The college boys turned down Second, then to a side street.
No one was around. Kerr didn’t stop to think why
they were trailing them, or even if it was something he
wanted to do. He just did it. His body no longer hurt.
He no longer felt angry, or humiliated, or hopeless, just
tense, like an over-tightened guitar string on the verge
of breaking. The college boys didn’t see them until
they turned down the next street. Then the two in front
picked up their pace, talking nervously, and the three
behind shortened the distance.
All at once, the college boys took off running, splitting
off in different directions. Buzz, Kerr and Gunner took
off after the Asian, leaving the other alone. The target
began to panic when he saw all three of them gaining on
him, slipping, almost falling, trying door after door
of a deserted warehouse. His friend shouted at them, frightened
and confused, then began to run the other way, yelling
for help. Down the block, they easily overtook the target,
and dragged him into the alley.
What happened next didn’t seem real. Buzz let loose
a war cry, and a madness took over. Kerr wasn’t
aware of telling them to, but his fists and his feet were
flying in and out between those of his friends, into the
soft belly and hard ribs, against backbone, hipbones and
legs. He was aware of nothing but rage, so deep and strong
it washed his reason away.
At first, the college boy tried to hit back, then to cover
his head with his arms, but they were too weak and small
to defend him. Soon, he gave a little cry and slumped
down the brick of the warehouse wall. When he hit the
ground, it was over.
The three stood over him, breathing hard. Kerr looked
at the bloodied body lying at his feet, breathing but
unconscious. He felt no remorse, no pity, only a feeling
Gunner spat on the ground. Buzz zipped his jacket up,
giving the slumped form one last look, then turned and
headed up the alley, talking aloud to himself as much
as to the other two, trying to hide his abhorrence and
his fear: “Fuckin’ pooch eater didn’t
put up much of a fight.” In a near trance, Kerr
and Gunner continued to follow.
The sound of distant sirens floated into the alley. They
began to jog lightly, automatically. Gravel and broken
glass crunched under their boots, echoing off the broken
warehouse windows lining both sides of the alley, three
getting’ closer.” Gunner’s voice was
flat as they turned out the opposite end of the alley.
It was hard to tell, but it was possible that they were
getting closer, possible that the friend had called the
police. The thought only crossed Kerr’s mind as
a point of interest, not as a threat. They turned towards
King. From there they could double back to the side street
where they’d left the car. They pushed themselves
harder to climb a steep grade, but they weren’t
in a panic, running from the law.
As he strode along, Kerr thought about how strange it
was, the three of them meandering like Sunday joggers
with the police probably not far enough behind them. He
had run from the police many times before, for petty crimes,
kid stuff, and those times he had always been afraid of
being caught. This time, though, he wasn’t scared.
He just felt empty.
Then it struck him, as things sometimes did when he least
expected it, that they weren’t running harder because
there was nothing to fear. They had nothing to lose. Whoever
or whatever they might have been before tonight, this
strange Saturday night, was lost. Who they had become
tonight could not be left behind in the past; they could
not be escape themselves. Still, they continued to run,
habit alone driving them forward, unsure of why they ran,
not caring how fast or how far because it simply didn’t
matter. Nothing mattered.
They were already gone.
2006 by K.C. Hutchinson