by Sean H. Doyle
There was this Mormon kid in my neighborhood that had a half-pipe ramp in his yard. The Mormon kid’s parents had spent a lot of money to get it built for him. Because it was the best ramp in our zip code, everyone was always there just hanging around — every now and then guys from semi-famous bands like Jodie Foster‘s Army would show up.
Most of the time I would just go over there to watch. I was a terrible street skater — I would almost always end up hitting some errant rock and my wheels would lock up and send me flying into a parking lot to bleed. I spent a lot of time silently hanging around, trying to learn as much as I could by just watching everyone and seeing how easily they pulled off something that seemed almost impossible for me.
One day when I was watching a bunch of older kids skate, I noticed another goofy-looking kid off to the side, with his head kind of lolling around. He was wearing a homemade Black Flag t-shirt and his shorts were obviously a pair of men’s slacks that he had cut off. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I asked one of the other kids about him and he just shook his head at me and laughed.
“That’s ‘The Huffer,’ dude. Kid is fucked up all the time.”
His nickname sounded a little dangerous to me, so I decided immediately that I was going to befriend The Huffer.
Obviously, The Huffer got his nickname because he would huff anything to get high — permanent markers and model airplane glue being his favorites. The Huffer would wander the aisles at The Hobby Bench and stuff tube after tube of noxious dreams into his pockets — this was before the store realized that kids were rolling in there and stealing all of their possible inhalants and putting them in a locked cage behind the counter.
There was another spot all the kids congregated at to skate — The Wedge — which was a concrete irrigation canal that ran behind a high school in our neighborhood. The Huffer used to go nod out over there while watching kids skate back and forth in zig-zag patterns up and down the inclines of the canal. Every now and then The Huffer would snap out of it for a second, rise to his feet and drop down into the canal and skate through it like he was avoiding landmines that only he could see.
In a lot of ways, he was a legend as much as he was a laughingstock.
It was at The Wedge where I finally tried to talk to The Huffer. He was, as usual, slumped over his board and watching kids skate through his half-lidded eyes. A small and fine line of drool hung from his mouth to his shoulder, leaving a wet spot on his sleeve. I made my way over to where he was and pulled out a smoke, causing him to turn his head and look over at me.
“You got another one of those, dude?”
I pulled one out and handed it to him along with my lighter, which he then pocketed. The Huffer went right back to watching the other kids skate. I sat there buzzing inside about our little exchange. After a few moments of silence went by, I decided to try and speak to him.
“How come you never wear shoes, dude?”
The Huffer took a long slow look at me, and then he looked at my board.
“How come you have a nice board that looks brand fucking new? I see you at all these spots and never see you skate. You a poseur, dude?”
“Poseur? No, dude — I’m just not very good.”
“Ha. Well the only way you’re gonna get good is to fuck it up and maybe break some bones.”
We went right back to just watching the other kids. I felt exposed and sat there questioning whether or not I was indeed a poseur, and The Huffer went back to being The Huffer.
I decided to go and get a couple of slices of pizza. My stomach had been making noise all morning, and I surely hadn’t worked up the nerve to actually skate — especially after getting outed by The Huffer, even if it was just between the two of us.
“I’m gonna skate over to Uncle Sam’s and grab some food — wanna come with?”
Sitting at a booth at Uncle Sam’s — a pizza place where everyone went after Little League games — The Huffer allows his veneer to clear a bit. The waitress who brings us our food is his older cousin, and she calls him by his given name, which makes him blush a little. He has red hair and fair skin, spackled with bits of acne. A safety pin dangles from his left earlobe.
“Do you get high, Sean?”
The Huffer asks me this as he blows on his slice of pizza. His eyes look heavy and he is slumped forward in the booth with the top half of his frame hunched all the way over the slice as if he is shielding it from the sun itself.
“I smoke pot when I can get it, but I don’t really want to do any heavy shit like coke or heroin.”
“Right on. Ever huffed paint before?”
“Fuck, dude — it’s the best. You don’t need to find a dealer, you just breathe it in and you’re high as fuck.”
I watched The Huffer as he ate his pizza. He took his time with it, and took slow deliberate sips from the straw in his glass of soda. I noticed that he had scratches on the inside of his arms — cuts, really — and I could smell how rank the baseball hat he had been wearing was as it sat on the table in front of us.
“After we finish eating I wanna show you something.”
In a little strip mall across the street from Uncle Sam’s was a grocery store, a small auto parts place, movie theater, and an ice cream parlor. The Huffer told me to go wait behind the grocery store for him. I found a spot near the dumpster and parked myself on an empty milk crate.
Five minutes go by and then The Huffer comes skating over with a sheepish face. He tail grinds and comes to a stop right in front of me and pulls a can out of his pocket and holds it before my face — a can of engine coolant.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Freon, dude. Freon will get you fucked up.”
I just stared at The Huffer.
The Huffer wasted a few minutes trying to goad me into huffing engine coolant with him, and then he realized I wasn’t going to budge. I told him I would keep a look-out for him so he could get high. I watched as he struggled to attach the hose to the pressurized compartment that housed the gaseous contents he wanted so badly to inhale. His eyes were flickering as the hose snapped into place and the slow hiss was heard.
“Fuck yeah, man. This is going to be rad. You sure you don’t want any, dude?”
I shook my head.
I watched as The Huffer put the hose in his mouth and started to breathe deeply — instead of holding the can with his hands he held it tightly between his thighs, so that he could keep his hands free to yank the hose out of his mouth before it froze to the tissue — his eyes getting bigger and wetter with each deep inhalation. The hissing sound coming from the canister sounded like a basket full of cobras. The Huffer was slowly rocking back and forth while sitting on his board, the wheels crunching underneath him in a rhythm as he pulled the fumes into himself. His bare feet were blackened and his toes started to curl up.
I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye before I heard the big booming voice.
“What the fuck are you doing back here? Get the fuck out of here!”
A pair of burly arms came flying in and tried to grab at me, so I jumped on my board and started to kick wildly to get away. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw The Huffer struggling to break free from a guy who was wearing the uniform for the grocery store — he ended up picking up his board and striking the guy across his face, breaking into a barefoot sprint and then jumping on his board to catch up to me halfway toward the main street.
After making it to the street I stopped to gather myself. The angry dude from the grocery store had gone back inside. We were safe. The Huffer was skating toward me, laughing hysterically. That’s when I saw it — the hose from the can of engine coolant, frozen to his tongue with the can flopping around at his chest, brackish blood pouring out of his mouth and staining his shirt.
“Oh fuck — are you okay, man?”
“N-n-nnnnnnnno, I n-n-nnnnot oh-kkkkkay. G-g-ggggget it off m-m-mmmme.”
The Huffer pulled up the bottom of his shirt to cradle the canister in it as we rushed back over to Uncle Sam’s. We locked ourselves in the bathroom and as soon as we were under the light I was able to see that the coolant had definitely frozen the hose to the top of his tongue. His fingers were starting to look like bruises. I turned on the sink, thinking that using warm water would help loosen the hose from his bleeding flesh.
Not once did either one of us think about disconnecting the hose from the canister — we were too panicked.
The Huffer’s eyes were welling with tears when I scooped the first handful of water onto his tongue and he recoiled and made a sound that definitely let me know the water was too hot. He turned his head back to face me and I could see a small amount of color coming back to his frozen tongue.
“Do you want me to just yank it off, like a Band-aid?”
The Huffer shook his head in a violent affirmative.
When I grabbed the hose it was so cold it burned my fingers — in a flash I pulled as hard as I could. The snapping sound the top of his tongue made caused me to cringe, as did the amount of blood that began to pour free from the wound. This was far worse than the amount of blood that was coming out before — this was like a river. All I could think to do was grab The Huffer by the back of the head and push his head into the sink with the water which then turned crimson.
The majority of the top of his tongue was still attached to the end of it. Blood was all over the floor. Blood was all over my hands. Blood was all over The Huffer’s blackened feet. Someone was knocking on the door to the bathroom and all I could hear were the muffled sobbing sounds coming from The Huffer’s head in the sink. Quickly, I told The Huffer to grab a towel that was hanging on the back of the door and soak it in the water. He then shoved the towel in his mouth, took off his shirt and then wrapped the canister, hose and his no longer attached flesh in it before he barged out the bathroom door in a dead sprint through the dining area and into the parking lot.
I stood there paralyzed when I looked out the doorway and saw a small boy who could not have been six or seven years old and watched as he turned ghastly white at seeing all the blood everywhere. The bathroom looked like a murder scene. I ran, too.
By the time I reached the parking lot, The Huffer was long gone. There was a visible trail of blood droplets that told me he made it out of there somehow. I decided that it would probably be best for me to skate my way back home — I’d had more than enough excitement for one day.
I would see The Huffer now and again at skate competitions or at hardcore shows. He was always kind of weird around me after that, almost as if he blamed his new speech impediment on me in some way — as if it were my fault he let a hose full of engine coolant freeze his tongue away. I tried to ask him once if his tongue had grown back and he just glared at me and walked away. Last I heard he ended up developing a pretty terrible heroin habit and moved to the Pacific Northwest.
Sean H. Doyle lives in Brooklyn, NY. He works hard every day to be a better person. His writing can be found at www.seanhdoyle.com
Artwork by Margarita Korol.