Learning to Fight

“What did you say?” I stepped in front of Ricky Harding. “What did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything.” He tried to step by but I blocked him.

“Fuck you. What did you say? I heard you say something. What did you say?” I kept moving in front of him so he couldn’t get by.

“I didn’t say anything.”

I bumped his shoulder with mine, “I said, ‘what did you say?’”

He looked at me, then at everyone standing behind me. Joe, Half Pint, Edie, a couple dudes who got high with us. We were standing at the back corner of the Giant, near the dumpster. Harding looked at me again. He was fidgeting. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Not so brave now, huh? You called me a dick, didn’t you?” I looked at the little dude with him. He was scared and looking to run. This was the last place he wanted to be: trapped behind the Giant.

“In fact,” I said, “I heard you been talking a lot of shit about me. What’s up?”

They were both looking around now. Both trapped. They couldn’t make it to the schoolyard, and Joe was blocking the sidewalk to the front of the store. They really didn’t want to fuck with Joe. They knew where they were: trapped.

Little dude was safe, if he didn’t butt in. No, this was between me and big mouth Harding, who bragged he could kick my ass. The rumor spread that he wanted to meet me after school, but then he took the bus or got picked up by his mom. When I confronted him, he challenged me to meet after school the next day. He thought the teachers would hear about it by then and stop it before it happened, or at least before it got out of control. But I tricked him. I caught him in the morning, before school.

“Look,” he was nervous. “I didn’t say anything. And we have to get to school.”

“Fine.” I stepped aside to let him pass. But I couldn’t just let him pass. It was springtime and the smell of blood was in the air. And besides, I spent all winter building my reputation as a badass. That was probably why Harding was talking shit. We used to be friends.

“Fine. You want to go to class? Go.” I stepped further aside. Little dude went first. When Harding walked by I clocked him on the jaw and his face exploded. Literally, his face burst open. He looked at me and blood just poured from his face. That was when I realized how bad his acne was. His whole face was cratered and mounded. When I hit him I burst a million pimples. Blood and puss poured from his cheek like a squeezed sponge.

My punch knocked him to one side but it didn’t knock him down. I still had to work on that. I saw it in a movie so I knew it could be done: hit a dude so hard you knock him off his feet. But even though he didn’t drop, I did punch him hard enough to make his face explode. So that was cool.

Then Harding got pissed. He straightened up and puffed his chest like he was going to do something. “You’re a dick.”

I hit him again. “That’s what you’ve been saying.”

He took a swing that missed by a mile and I hit him again. This time on his other cheek. Then he tackled me to the ground, but I kept hitting him while we wrestled. He got in a few punches, a couple in the face, but mostly body shots. They’re no good in school yard fights. Not enough visible damage. That’s what determines the loser: who looks more fucked up the next day.

Harding got in a couple of face shots, but no black eyes. And they didn’t really hurt. Actually, they felt kind of good, dull but good. Each time he hit me, it just didn’t hurt. Probably because of my huge jaw, wide and square and thick. The dentist had to use extra Novocain just to numb me enough to fill cavities. So hitting me was futile unless you used a baseball bat. And since Ricky Harding didn’t have a bat he had to keep trying with his fists.

We beat on each other some more. His face got bloodier and he got more upset. He wrestled me to the ground again but I threw him off, jumped up, and kicked him in the ribs. He rolled over, holding his side, then got up slowly. There was something satisfying about inflicting damage on a dude. But something sickening, too.

I knew the fight was over. It was pointless. I had won. Harding was humiliated and I was a badass. I dropped my fists to gesture he could leave. He took the opportunity to hit me. Right hook to the jaw. It felt like everything he had: anger, frustration, everything. And it just didn’t hurt. In fact, it tingled, and for some reason it reminded me that I wanted a cheesesteak for lunch later.

I shrugged my shoulders at Harding. He swung at me again. I didn’t move. I let him hit me. I didn’t raise my fists, didn’t move, didn’t say anything. I just looked at him. The fight was over. I already won. He turned to look for his friend who was waiting with his school books. Little dude bugged when he got a clear look at Harding’s face. Then he motioned Harding to come on. When they walked past I was looking straight ahead at Joe leaning against the building, smiling.

We picked a lot of fights that spring. Joe was a really good fighter, even then. He was fast and fearless. When a dude he beat brought back his big brother, Joe beat him too. He was bigger than Joe but not nearly as fast. Joe was fast.

I was a slugger. I learned to fight from Throttle, before he got busted for manslaughter. He put gloves on me in Duke’s backyard when I was ten and beat the shit out of me until I learned to hit back. He got pissed when I snuck in a good punch. But no matter how pissed he got, he couldn’t knock me down. Maybe I didn’t understand how badly he was beating me, so I just stayed up. Throttle got worn out and frustrated, and I just got sick of him hitting me. I got tired, too. It wore me out, even if it didn’t hurt.

My arms were too tired to hold up and I said, “I’ve had enough.” But Throttle said, “Bullshit,” and hit me again. “Keep your guard up. Like this.” He held his gloves up in front of his nose. “Keep your elbows in. Like this. So no one can slip in a punch.” He circled me, throwing easy jabs at my gloves. “Good. Now, don’t forget the hook.” And “POP”, he banged me in my ear. Didn’t hurt. Just made my ear warm. But mostly it was just annoying.

“Gotta block them hooks, Little Mann. They’ll kill ya.”

“I’m tired.”

“No. You can’t get tired.” He lunged his shoulder for emphasis. “You get tired, you get killed.”

“I’m still tired.”

He popped me again. “Keep your guard up. Come on.” He lunged and popped me again. My arms were just too tired. I couldn’t lift them. “Come on, Mann.” Lunge. Pop. I was getting annoyed. He was getting pissed.

“Quit hitting me. I’m done.”

“So fall down.”

I didn’t understand, so I kept saying, “Stop hitting me. I’m done.” But he got angrier and hit me again. Then he went off, just started beating me like crazy: full jabs, one after another. All of them connecting. I couldn’t get out of the way. It was getting on my nerves, like a swarm of bees.

Eventually he wore out and stopped hitting me. We both leaned on the fence to rest. Between gasps he called me “little mother fucker” and kept looking at me and shaking his head. I was just glad he stopped hitting me.

After a couple of minutes Throttle stood up and took a deep breath. I was sitting on the ground resting when he hit me on the shoulder. I looked up. He smiled and started walking away, gloves slung over his shoulder, “Next time I’m not holding back.”