At night, Billy sits with Brother John and the guys at their WAR house in the Panhandle as they watch the videos of the National Socialist Party. Billy always sits on the scratchy green tweed sofa that reminds him of his Granny’s but Brother John’s smells like earth and rain and the chocolate smell of mildew.
It is Hitler’s birthday. Mother Beulah has made a Nazi cake in the colors of the flag. She sets it on the oilcloth. Her arms are exposed and giggling like Granny’s. He imagines them soft to the touch. In the center of the sheet cake she had written in a thin chocolate scrawl: Happy Birthday, Hitler! Mama Beulah has arthritis and her hands weren’t steady but Brother John doesn’t fault her.
Billy gets a corner piece of the cake, where the piped chocolate icing has bunched up and there is a tiny SS bolt. Everybody is grabbing for the plates and tiny plastic forks. He pulls himself through sweat drenched boyhood, some bigger bodies too, shoving, the guys cackling and laughing. Mama never made a big cake like this. His birthday was on Halloween. She put a candle in a jacko-lantern. He blew it out. There was no one around.
Every night after dinner, they watch the videos of the Hitler youth in the Old Country, before The Second World War. They talk of the racial consciousness of the boy in the video who plays the drum so hard in the Hitler youth band, who looks like a live Little Drummer Boy from Billy’s nighttime book in the guest room at Granny’s. One of the guys, usually Grady, whose sideburns are so wide and long they’re almost a beard, always says that drummer kid’s got his shit together.
Grady wears black boots with red laces. Red laces mean something. Billy’s boots are red with black laces. If he grows up good in the movement and succeeds, he’ll get his blood laces and black boots.
Billy sneaks downstairs after the salute. The salute is when they stand and put an arm out to the Nazi flag on the wall and Brother John sings the anthem he plays on a disc, a song about a pure white America. Brother John can’t sing and doesn’t always know the words but everyone has to put on a German helmet from the bin. No one smiles. You have to make her eyebrows bunch up and your eyes shaded. You have to sing very loudly. When it’s over you have to say, very loudly, White Power!
One time they’d burned an American flag in the woods when the Klan came for speeches and a cross burning. They had a punk Nazi band, definitely the kind of thing his stepfather hated, the sounds clashing like a car accident, screeching guitars, the band leader’s deep growls that didn’t sound like words. A force took a hold of Billy’s body and he thrashed about with the brothers in the heat and inky darkness, their bodies slamming into each other, girls watching from the fringes, silent and slouching, smoking.
He deserved to go to jail, it was true, that time living with his Mama and new Daddy. He held up a store with some friends and fired shots though no one got hurt. When he got out, only Brother John was there to make bail, along with Grady and a couple of guys his age, punk ass kids like him who were no longer wanted by their parents. His stepfather handed him over. He didn’t see his Mama again. He didn’t see his Granny. He didn’t hear the songs his Granny sang to him in a wavery voice at night about going to sleep, not worrying his head.
There is a mission that night of the cake, a ride along, and he is forced to go and he didn’t know about it. He is wrenched up from his bed by Brother John, his arm clamped by the same grip that held him sometimes against his will when secret things were happening, secret things even the other boys didn’t know about.
There is a group of them together in the pickup truck, the crickets and night frogs screeching, an owl its loud “hoo” insistent. They bump along in back, Grady and another older guy, and another kid his age. John is driving. The grand wizard has joined them, the wizard who always insisted from podiums in speeches they were about nonviolence. Billy asked him once after a ceremony about the noose patch on his robe. The wizard merely glared at him, his face severe under a pointed hat decorated with stars.
When they get to a house in the woods, there are some other skinheads there already with sawn off shotguns. They busted in and hauled out a black man and laid him out behind the truck. The man’s wife runs outside, screaming. A skinhead with a the big fat gun they called The Judge cocks the piece against her skull. The skinhead bending over the black man has a chain over his shoulder.
“You two boys, you young’uns!” he says pointing to Billy and the other young kid in the back. “Time to step up and be men.”
“You heard him now,” says Brother John. “Time to get out now and earn your laces! Time to see something, be someone.”
The man with the chain tells the other boy to run the chain around the hauling hitch. Then he gives Billy the rest.
“It’s in your hands, son. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Billy thinks only of Brother John. Billy has no one. Nowhere he belongs. He would get his red laces and even the older guys would think he was a bad ass Nazi and no one would treat him like a baby.
Brother John and Grady hold the black man’s ankles who is kicking and screaming. Billy puts the chain around them. Brother John hands him the lock. “It’s on you, son.” he says. “Let’s clean everything out now. Be a man.”
While the man kicks and Brother John yells at him, Billy hears his Granny’s gentle wavering voice singing Mary Poppins’ lullaby: “While the moon drifts in the skies, stay awake, don’t close your eyes.”
He clamps his hand over the lock and sprints into the woods, the undergrowth slapping his jeans, the thick night air flowing over him like warm water, the throats of the tree frogs cheering him.
“Billy!” he hears Brother John call, but he is racing through the night and is soon at the highway and can’t hear them at all.