On the evening of March 2, Youseff Ahmadi, in his nineteenth year on earth, and his second month in the United States, the fourth child and only son of Zaid and Hala Ahmadi, was struck in the back of the head with a baseball bat.
He lay bleeding from his wound, a severely fractured skull, on the gritty blacktop in the parking lot at the rear of Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, his bloodied black hair matted in the deep rent in his skull and in his being.
Though you will want to know, the place where this happened is unimportant. It could have been anywhere, in any town, any city, any country.
In the preceding hours, Youseff had collected discarded food left on the tables, beneath chairs, and the floor. He wiped up smeared ketchup and sauerkraut. He set the tables and chairs right and he wheeled the trash barrel past the counter and out the back door to the garbage bin. Repeatedly, he opened the chain-link gate, dumped the refuse into the receptacle, closed the gate behind him and returned inside, pushing the trash can ahead of him.
Youseff’s uncle, Ameer, worked behind the counter, deep frying cut potatoes, shaking the thick golden-browned pieces free of dripping oil, salting them and placing them in steam trays under the counter lights. He kept an eye on his nephew. The boy had yet to learn a word of English. He had no friends. Only his family. And his job. The night shift.
In a nearby apartment, in a two-story white brick building with a small garden out back, Martin Mickler, Roger Santorini, and Peter Ostroff sat on the couch in Mickler’s living room. They were friends from the neighborhood.
They met at Nathan’s after school each day. None of them liked school. Some days, they just wouldn’t go and if they did go, they sat in the back of the classrooms with a newspaper open in front of them or pretended to sleep with their heads on their desks. They caused trouble with plausible deniability. Pushing books to the floor, tipping their chairs back till they’d topple over, knocking kids into lockers. They acted as if they had a right to it all. Unrestrained performers. Uncontested provocateurs.
At Nathan’s it was no different. When a young worker passed, they’d shoot a leg out, or tip over a Coke, or bump into someone carrying a tray filled with hotdogs and fries and cups of soda.
None of this went unseen by the young men who worked the day shift to clean tables and sweep floors and stay out of trouble. They’d look threateningly as if they might do something to retaliate, cursed them in their own language, flicked a broom over their shoes. Day after day the slow escalating conflict heated. There was bad blood between them.
If Mickler and Santorini had not gone out that night with baseball bats under their tweed winter coats, they may have finished high school, they may have signed up to go to Vietnam, they may have gotten married and had kids, or maybe not. But they did go out.
And when they went out, they took a few friends with them. Ostroff drove his father’s Pontiac with a bench seat in front and an automatic shift on the steering column. They didn’t speak. They parked in the Rexall lot across from Nathan’s.
Mickler had called the young men Spics. Had warned them against looking at his girl. Arlette told him to stop but he ignored her. There was not much of anything she could do.
But Arlette could see what was happening, and the night the boys drove to Nathan’s in the Pontiac with the baseball bats under their coats, she stayed home. Mickler told her he was going to get the Spic who was looking at her. No one could treat her like that and get away with it. You couldn’t let people treat you like that.
The plan was simple, uncomplicated. Santorini would order a pizza but not pay for it. He’d run out the back door and hide behind the trash bin, meeting the others there and wait for the workers to follow him.
Santorini stole the pizza. Mickler and Ostroff and the others hid behind the bin holding their bats. Waiting.
The workers didn’t chase after him. They were night shift. They took things easy. They had no beef with anyone. Didn’t know these boys. They went on with their work. They would finish their shift and go home and have dinner.
At nine-thirty, Youseff Ahmadi pushed the garbage cart out the back door of the restaurant, the heat and the humid smells from inside followed him. He opened the gate. He emptied the trash barrel and turned to leave.
It was then that Mickler or Santorini or Ostroff or some of the others cocked their wooden bats behind his head and took a swing as if on a playground and a ball floated easily in the air as big as a grapefruit and the bats arced out and hit Youseff, who none of them had ever seen before, squarely with all of the concussive force and rage they had in them.
If Youseff had not left the restaurant at that moment, he might have learned to speak English, to play the piano, might have gone to the local community college, might have studied hard, might have become a nurse like his mother, might have slept soundly at night, might have had a future.
But then, he did.