An unnamed narrator, looking back on his past, recalls “a time when it was good to be bad,” when he and his friends, at nineteen years old, were desperate to be seen as “dangerous characters.” In order to do so they “wore torn-up leather jackets, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine, [and] went up to Greasy Lake.” Once a clear, glistening lake, it has now become a murky and “festering” place, but it is still all the boys know of nature.
It is the third night of summer vacation, and the boys are dreadfully bored—Greasy Lake offers the possibility of danger, intoxication, and sex. The narrator and his friends Digby and Jeff (who, like the narrator, are teenagers benefiting from a comfortable, middle-class adolescence) take the narrator’s mother’s Bel Air out “past the housing developments and shopping malls” to the lake. When they arrive, a mint-condition ’57 Chevy is parked in the dirt lot at the lakefront, and on the other side of the lot there is an abandoned motorcycle. Digby recognizes the Chevy as belonging to their friend Tony Lovett; they decide to play a “hilarious” joke on “Tony,” and flash their brights, honk the car’s horn, and jump out to go “press [their] witty faces” against the Chevy’s window.” As they do, the narrator drops his keys in the grass.
The narrator and his friends quickly realize that the car does not belong to Tony Lovett, but rather to a “very bad character in greasy jeans and engineer boots.” The Bad Character, infuriated, begins attacking the narrator while Digby attempts to fight back with moves he learned in “a course in martial arts for phys-ed credit.” Digby is quickly “laid out” by the Bad Character, so Jeff attacks the man while the narrator retrieves a tire iron from beneath the front seat of his mother’s car and uses it to bring the Bad Character down in one fell swoop.
As the three boys stand over the Bad Character’s unconscious body, his companion, The Fox, emerges from the car screaming. She’s barefoot, “dressed in panties and a man’s shirt,” and she calls the boys “animals.” The narrator notes her “blow-dried hair, silver [anklet, and] flash[ing] toenails.” The boys descend upon her, “tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh.”
A car pulls into the lot and the boys scatter. Their car keys are lost and so, unable to drive away, they “bolt” for cover elsewhere. The narrator runs to the lake’s edge, planning to “swim for it,” but he feels something in the water—realizing it is a dead body, the narrator stumbles away horrified.
The narrator hears The Fox tell the two blond drivers of the car that the boys “tried to rape [her]” and then two voices (one of which the narrator recognizes, with relief, to be the Bad Character’s) call threats against the boys into the night. The narrator hears the three men “turn to [his mother’s] car,” and he peeks through the weeds to watch as the Bad Character and the two blond men destroy the Bel Air. The Fox, calling the Bad Character “Bobbie,” implores him to stop so that they can leave. They do, and are soon followed by the two blond men.
The narrator lies in “the primordial ooze” at the lake’s edge for a long time, bemoaning his bad fortune. He recalls the dead body, and realizes that it belongs to “the owner of the chopper, no doubt, a bad character come to this.” Thankful for his life, and for the approaching dawn, the narrator returns to his mother’s car, inspecting the damage.
Digby and Jeff join the narrator, noting that “at least” the tires are intact, and they’ll be able to drive home. The three boys clean up the car in silence. The narrator reaches into his pocket for his keys, but remembers that they’re missing; he spots them in the grass, “no more than five feet” from the car. He retrieves them and starts the car.
A silver Mustang covered in flame decals pulls into the dirt lot and two girls step out of it. They inspect the lone motorcycle in the corner of the lot and begin calling for “Al.” One of the girls approaches the boys—she is “stoned or drunk,” and asks if they’ve seen Al, the owner of the bike. The boys tell her they have not. The girl tells the boys that they look like “pretty bad characters” and offers them pills; the boys refuse, and the narrator drives away. He looks back in his rearview mirror and sees the older girl “still standing there, her shoulders slumped, hand outstretched.”