METALHEAD AT THE MALL
W. Todd Kaneko
Metalhead swaggers through the mall, a giant crumpled and stuffed into a sixteen-year-old boy’s scrawny frame. His parents say his sister tried to smother him with a pillow when he was a baby, so now he refuses to be suffocated. He needs to take up space, so the world can’t dismiss his dragon spirit, his serpent heart. Metalhead throws his chest back, carries himself like the ogre carries his stench, like the Minotaur carries his horns heavy through the labyrinth. Metalhead steals a cassette tape from the Music Mart—slips it up his coat sleeve and strides out the door. He smirks at that cashier’s floppy bangs, at that tiny braid like a mouse’s tail. The tape is Judas Priest’s Stained Class, a birthday present for his friend Rockgod. Metalhead carries it through the mall like a man carries guilt, his brisk pace carrying him to safety. He sneers at that boy folding sweaters at the Gap, at that girl straightening blouses at Banana Republic. He looks behind him for mall security, ready to run because when he learned his sister once tried to smother him, Metalhead punched her in the arm. When she punched him back, he exhaled a tornado and fell to the floor, but today he is on the move. He strides through Macy’s, past the cosmetics counters and the mannequins, foxy in their spring colors and out to the sidewalk. He crosses the street, hops on the bus and settles into a seat in the back. As the mall fades into the distance, he opens the tape and pops it into his Walkman. He turns his headphones up so loud that the old lady sitting behind the driver glowers at him like he is breaking the law.
METALHEAD AWAY FROM HOME
Whenever his father lectures him, Metalhead is on his way to California. He drives a Pontiac Firebird, blazing down a two-lane blacktop, windows open with a song about how it feels to be young and free and not going to college or having a job. Nebraska is grass and gold, all that corn stretching from the road to the horizon and the whole world waits at the fingertips of any dude with a high school education and a driver’s license. The road is a line striping between home and a baseball stadium in New England, a beach house in the Pacific Northwest, a studio apartment deep within some inner city hive in ochre and charcoal. The high plains of Wyoming are amber under a cobalt sky, bison like thunder, the earth rippling under them the way a kid imagines the universe moving beneath his feet as he walks out the front door of his childhood house toward greatness. On a desert road in New Mexico, a girl sits selling jewelry, gems and stones every hue of blue imaginable. She might ask him to drive her to the ocean where the water surges white against the shoreline. Metalhead’s father says a man should be proud of the place he comes from. He says America is that place where your parents sleep, that muscle in your chest beating to the rhythm of tire tread on the open road. He says a boy can’t go anywhere without a road map. He says Michigan is prettiest in Autumn when the trees turn maroon and copper and umber. These are the many hues of rust, all the colors of home, gorgeous because the landscape is corroding.
A neighborhood game of two-hand touch: when Metalhead finds the last picks to be that girl from two blocks away and himself, he joins his team by default. His father is a Lions fan and Metalhead doesn’t pay enough attention to know all of the rules. All he understands is catch and run and his father says that’s good enough to get by. His teammates call him New Kid because they don’t care what his name is. His father calls him Sport, his mother calls him Honey, and his sister calls him You Little Jerk, but only to his face. They line up in the middle of the street with the idea that the intersections will be the goal lines. At his last school, he wanted to be called something cool like Spike or Big Guy, but was called Bookworm despite the fact that he doesn’t like to read. Metalhead is matched up with that girl from two blocks away—the kids call her Flower Girl because of the daffodils on her shirt. The quarterback starts calling numbers and Metalhead doesn’t know what they mean. He imagines that the other kids are picking up instructions. Forty-two means cream the new kid. Eighteen means everyone gets creamed. Twelve means that people all over the world are getting creamed and nobody knows what their names are. Hut-hut-hike: the girl lets loose a scream and charges at Metalhead with both forearms—a flash of light and Metalhead is on on the asphalt looking up at the sky while everyone runs toward the intersection. Everyone except the girl—she calls him, Pussy. Metalhead takes the hand she offers to help him up. He hopes that name doesn’t stick.
When Metalhead’s dog dies, his sister weeps for her memory of playing frisbee with the old German Shepherd in the park, the way the dog would startle her awake with a tongue across the face as she lay out in the back yard. When that memory is gone, the dog will be free to chase any car into the night. Metalhead does not cry—instead, he turns the volume up on his headphones, Megadeth is his favorite band and the music transforms every emotion into rage against those things that cause him pain Metalhead’s father spends an hour that afternoon looking out the kitchen window before retreating to the garage to sneak a few swigs of whiskey and fiddle with the car. One day he will tell Metalhead about how the vet let him cradle the dog’s head in his arms for twenty minutes afterwards, but neither of them will know what to do with this information. When that memory is gone, the dog will be free to become a coyote or an ambulance siren or any song that announces disaster. Metalhead’s mother refuses to talk about the dog. She prepares dinner that night: meatloaf and broccoli with cheese, and when she calls the family to the table, Metalhead is not there. As usual, they don’t come looking for him. Metalhead has squeezed himself half way into the doghouse in the backyard, and as he lay in the grass on his stomach watching them through the kitchen window. The meal is silent from his perspective, save for the thunder of Megadeth blasting through his headphones. Some memories will never be gone.
Metalhead was six when he first saw the black car, a cold flicker of dark flame in his hand, a toy that was not an animal or a knife, but dangerous like a box of matches and a can of turpentine, a snake’s bite and a flash of skin. He is fifteen when he sees it again behind the school, that Trans-Am in the back parking lot, the color of a forest after the fire, an obsidian star blazing among the primer and rust. Metalhead ignores all the other cars, the other kids sneaking cigarettes outside because no one inside cares enough to stop them. He has thirty minutes for lunch between biology and math—he isn’t passing either class. His father gives him hell about grades every night because the auto plant could close at any time, because the Firebird careens through both their lives, that gloom of feathers for the boneyard, that gleam of chrome threatening to burst into flame. Someone’s car stereo blares AC/DC—Highway to Hell—and Metalhead imagines himself behind the wheel of that black car, one hand on the stick and the other flashing the devil’s horns at the world as he drives. He imagines how it feels to travel at the speed of sound, to bend spoons with brain waves, to crash into a gas station and whooosh—the smoke unfurls into the night. He imagines his father and a table full of empty beer cans, his own table upended one day. He looks at his reflection in the window and imagines he is six again as he rakes his housekey along the length of the passenger door so the world will know where that black car has been.
W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). His prose and poems have appeared in Barrelhouse, The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rumpus, and many other journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of Waxwing magazine and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.