My father taught me how to fight when I was so young that I probably would have had trouble beating up a chicken. He started by showing me the proper way to make a fist. I was never sure who I was supposed to be fighting or what sort of brawls, if any, my dad had ever been in. Mostly, he seemed like a man who ranted like a maniac behind closed doors, but had trouble making eye-contact with anyone in the light of day. If my adversary got in too close, I was supposed to drive my elbow into his throat or, better yet, knee him in the balls. It made sense to me—using my hard parts on my opponent’s soft parts—otherwise, my bones felt like they were made of glass. He would demonstrate in front of me, slapping his elbow with his hand just before it reached my chin. His face would get all red while he bit his bottom lip. He looked crazy as hell. I just wanted to please him, so he would leave me alone.
We used to watch boxing matches together on television, keeping scorecards that we updated after each round. We both loved Roberto Duran. He was one of the toughest fighters of all-time, but all people remember is the one bad fight when he said “no, más.” He wasn’t flashy like Leonard, just a guy who went in the ring and did a job. My father would drink a can of beer on the couch while his son sat on the floor. He would watch Roberto Duran pummel some poor bastard’s brains out for twelve rounds and in that time, he didn’t worry about what kind of car he drove or what he would face when he punched the clock again on Monday.
Back then my parents used to have some bouts of their own. I enjoyed watching them a good deal less. My mother was not a meek woman. She was too terrified to leave him, but she wasn’t meek. There were afternoons when she would tear into him from the kitchen. And some nights he would get drunk and call her all sorts of names in a voice loud enough for her to hear through the wall. I imagined her alone in there sobbing in the darkness as he forced me to take his side. My whole childhood was like that, caught between them, yet pretending not to be there at all.
Sometimes it got physical. There are some things you just can’t forgive no matter how hard you want to. I can remember occasions when my mother had to go to her job at the nursing home with her glasses taped together, making up some lame story that nobody believed. She had to carry the shame of that. I was her son, so I carried it too.
When I got a little older, my dad told me the story of how he broke my mother’s arm. It happened when I was just a baby. After that he cut back on his drinking. He saw it as a real turning point. I saw it as something else. My mother tried to control my father’s drinking. He was allowed three drinking days per week. On each of these days he was supposed to consume no more than a six pack. My mother made him write the time he started each beer on a piece of paper. He wasn’t supposed to drink them too fast lest he get out of control. The slip of paper with my father’s drinking times always reminded me of the scorecards we kept for the boxing matches. My mother would become very angry if my dad cheated on his times. Sometimes he would finish the six-pack and decide to buy another. He had to work on her to get permission. It would be a long night for my mother when things carried over into the twelfth round.
I always hated the conflict between them over drinking. I thought she should either leave him or else just let him do what he wanted. I know from experience that if you are accustomed to drinking at a certain time and are denied alcohol that you will become irritable as a result. The degree of your irritation will be determined be your alcohol dependency. By placing herself between my father and alcohol my mother made herself the object of his irritation, the subject of his rage. He never lashed out at me, only her, and I was always there to witness. I witnessed it for so long that he probably forgot I was there. That was a mistake on his part.
My father taught me many things: how to hunt and fish, how to play chess and throw a football, how to change a car tire. As I grew older, I was always trying to best him one way or another. I wanted his respect. But there was always this narcissism and paranoia in the way and I could never seem to connect with him. I remember how as a small boy my father would instruct me to bring him another beer from the refrigerator. I liked the coldness of the PBR can and the American-flag design. I liked the feeling of empowerment it gave me to transport the heavy can to him knowing I was forbidden to drink what was inside. I liked the sound it made when he pulled the tab back and poured it into a glass. We learn by example. I am not an alcoholic, nor am I violent. But I do drink with a regularity that has long concerned me. It is something I like. I cut back sometimes for no other reason than I don’t want to give it up. I am probably too hard on myself, but it is an unfortunate family tradition.
All through elementary school I was painfully aware that I was the skinniest kid in class. It seemed like an affliction. They didn’t make watch bands to fit wrists like mine. If I pushed my glasses up with my left hand, my watch would slide half way up my forearm. I was reasonably agile and held my own at most sports, but I still regarded myself as some form of freak. I didn’t like the K-Mart clothes my mom bought me or my wavy hair. I thought my lips were too full. As part of some project the teacher videotaped us each giving a speech. When she played mine I literally went into a closet and closed the door. I couldn’t look at myself. If I were to revisit the class photos from those years, I would probably see that most of the kids were just as nerdy. But at the time my self-consciousness was totally debilitating.
In my trailer court, there was this older kid who picked on me named Jim Barnes. Barnes was the toughest kid around. He had blonde hair that he kept parted in the middle and feathered on the sides. He went shirtless all summer long, so everyone could admire his muscled torso. He looked like that naked David statue the city had downtown except that he had the decency to wear cut-off shorts instead of letting his gonads hang out. He would make a big show of French-kissing his girlfriends in our presence. My friends and I could only turn away in discomfort. Girls were more objects of curiosity than desire at that point.
Barnes smoked Marlboro Reds. He was at least a couple of years older than the crowd of kids I hung around. I think he got held back a year or two. He got into a lot of fights that my friends and I didn’t even see. They were the stuff of legend. He was on the wrestling team like all the athletic kids who came out of the trailer court. Hardly anyone went out for football.
My father happened to be a wrestler and took third at state as a freshman. In his final match he got a cauliflower ear from an older boy because he wasn’t wearing headgear. I never saw it as a disfigurement, but I knew he was sensitive about it. I considered going out for wrestling in junior high. The coach approached me, but I didn’t take it as much of a compliment. Every year he roamed the hallways in search of some wimp to recruit for that 78-pound weight-class. I decided to stick to running. It seemed safer.
My friends looked up to Barnes more than I did. I was the special kid he always picked on. Whenever we crossed paths he tortured me. Each time it was something different. Once he had me face a small tree and then pulled on my arms until they felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets. Then he stabbed my forearms with pine needles until welts formed. Another time he told me he was going to cut my ear off with one of those butterfly knives they gave away as fair prizes. When I became hysterical, he called me a liar and informed me that he had been sawing with the dull edge of the knife. My ultimate debasement came when he tied me to a moped with a jump rope. I pled with him to stop as I ran frantically, trying as best I could not to be dragged to my death. My friends gave me shit about that one all summer long. If one of them crossed him they might get a minor beating, but never me. That was his control–the constant unrealized threat. After it was over and I had stopped crying, he acted like we were friends. We hung out as I watched him blow smoke rings. He was a bully. He chose me because I was the weakest. I was the skinny kid.
One summer my best friend, Dan Wiggins, and I got into a business arrangement with him mowing lawns even though we were a bit young. Barnes supplied the mower and made the sale while we did the work and split the money with him. It seemed ok at first, but after a while it got old. One hundred-degree day he put me to work on this enormous yard with the grass a foot high. I ran out of gas a third of the way through it with my limbs sunburned and dirty. My T-shirt was soaked with sweat and my tennis shoes were stained green. I said to hell with it and pushed the mower back to Barnes’ house. No one was home, so I just left it there. Days later I heard Barnes was after me. He thought I had ripped him off for the lawn. My friends said I should find him and explain my side of the situation, but I just pretended it would all blow over. Later in the week I was out riding my bike with a group of boys and we saw Barnes in a yard. This was my opportunity to square things away, but instead I pedaled by as fast as I could. A day later I heard that Jim Barnes was going to kick my ass. I was scared shitless. Jim Barnes was going to kick my ass. I was dead meat!
The trailer court wasn’t that big a place. I knew it was only a matter of time until he found me. I decided that if I wanted to survive to see junior high I’d better create my own witness-relocation program. I ditched all my regular friends and started hanging out in the suburban neighborhoods west of the trailer park with friends from school. I managed to dodge Barnes for about a month. I was always my most terrified returning to the trailer court on my bike to get back home.
I attended Hayward Elementary. It isn’t there anymore. It hasn’t been there for a long time. Now it’s a lot where they sell new trailers, only now they don’t call them trailers, they call them “pre-manufactured homes.”
The Williams Pipeline Company had a tank farm across the street from the school. The oil tanks looked to me like giant buckets of ice-cream. A herd of sheep kept the grass from getting too high. At the school, the water from the drinking fountains came out cloudy and didn’t taste right. We weren’t on city water over there. That part of town got its water from the Skunk Creek Aquifer which happened to be under the landfill. For years, the authorities told us the water was just hard. Finally, the ground was tested and the city condemned the school. The city auctioned off the land to William’s Pipeline for one dollar–the price of a school lunch. They were the only ones invited to the auction. The pipeline company put up a bigger fence and topped it with razor wire like a prison. Every so often I would see what used to be my school out the car window. The weeds in the cracks grew into bushes while the monkey bars turned to rust. Eventually, the playground equipment was hauled away and the brick building itself was torn down. It was nothing but leveled asphalt with these weird pipes sticking out of the ground. I admit it was a shock to see it so vacant. It felt sad to see the world change while I stayed the same, like a bug stuck in amber.
Bill Logan lived with his grandparents in a house that looked onto the Hayward playground. He was a pale kid with glasses, braces, and a mullet of curly hair. He didn’t have many friends or much in the way of confidence. What anyone remembers about Bill Logan is this: he managed to break both arms jumping a homemade bicycle ramp like Evel Knievel. He came back to school with casts from his fingers to his armpits with these poles that kept his arms perpendicular to his body.
One day riding my bike through the empty school grounds, Bill Logan and I crossed paths on a narrow strip of asphalt. I tried to get around him, but he blocked my way. Without any provocation, he called me a faggot. I asked him if he was crazy. He told me he could kick my ass.
“Fuck you, Logan!” I blurted.
He spat at me like a crazed animal. I looked around to see if we were alone. With my adrenaline flowing I hesitated, confident of myself, but still a bit frightened. Logan, as if giving me the excuse I needed, called me a pussy. With that, our bikes fell to the ground and we started to scuffle. He lost his balance and I was on top of him. His forehead was drenched in sweat as he looked up at me scared and helpless. I socked his face until his mouth and nose were bloody. The sky seemed vast overhead and I had this feeling of liberation, as if I could go on pounding him forever. I stopped out of mercy and offered him a truce. He nodded vigorously so we parted ways. I had never beaten anyone up before.
I took the back way home to my trailer like always. Suddenly, my heart leaped into my throat! Jim Barnes was mowing a lawn two trailers from mine. When he called out to me, I knew there was no escape. I just submitted to the inevitable as he sat on my sternum and pinned my elbows to the grass with his knees.
“You’re a sneaky son of a bitch.” He laughed and cocked his fist back. “You really deserve this.”
I begged him not to kill me. I was a blubbering mess. He looked around. There was no one there to watch. I could see in his face that he was taking pity on me. I explained to him that I had never collected the money for the lawn. All he had to do was knock on the door and they should give it to him. He nodded and rubbed his face pensively.
“When you see me, you stop,” he warned. “I already collected the money for that lawn.”
When he let me up, I was shuddering for breath.
“Relax,” he said, “you don’t have to be so scared of me.”
He patted me on the back. “I just kicked someone’s ass,” I told him as I wiped the tears from my face.
“No fuckin’ way,” he said in an impressed tone.
“Bill Logan,” I bragged. “I gave him a bloody nose.”
“No way,” he said. “That’s great. Bill Logan is a faggot.”
“You’re all right,” he told me.
I rode the short distance to my house. It felt like fifty pounds had been lifted from my shoulders and I felt like I owed it all to Bill Logan.
Years later in high school, I happened to be at the mall with Dan Wiggins and we ran into Jim Barnes in the parking lot. He was married already and driving a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Dan chatted with him while I just stared off in another direction. I could tell by his manner that he remembered me. It surprised me how average-looking he seemed. I probably had four inches in height on him. It would have been a fair fight, but I was better than that. It was enough to me that he was uncomfortable. Dan told me how he had contracted testicular cancer and had one of his nuts removed. I guess the half-neutering mellowed him out.