On doing the right thing.
In my junior year I saw thirty-five fist fights. They came like some pandemic no one had ever seen, and no one knew what to do. One fight the first day. Five the next.
Two days before Christmas break we had two assemblies. They said it was our responsibility to break up the fights. Obviously they knew we wouldn’t, so teachers were set up in each hallway. A peacekeeping team with no training for the disintegration of human virtue. They looked on, as dumb as everyone else. At the second assembly the football coach made a plan for the teachers to join hands and form a chain across the hallway. He said it would split the crowd as they moved toward the fight.
That football coach meant well, but he ignored a cardinal rule sports had already taught us: defense cannot stop momentum.
I walked to the bathroom just after lunch. My science teacher sat at a desk outside the bathroom. I think we were supposed to show him a pass or something. He nodded at me. A few days before we watched WrestleMania highlights in his classroom. He was twenty-three. He didn’t care if I had a hall pass.
“Yo,” I said.
Jake and Jimmie Jones were on the bathroom floor. Arguing about the dice they were rolling.
“Look at this,” Jimmie said.
I bent down. Two dice were against the wall. The third was caught right in a tile groove. They couldn’t agree which number it would have landed on. Maybe $20 was lying around them.
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked at the other two dice. “You’re not getting C-LO either way. Just re-roll.”
They stood up and lit cigarettes while I faced the urinal. They tried propping open the window but the glass kept sliding down.
“Let me go see if Mr. ******* has something,” Jimmie Jones walked towards the door with his cigarette.
Jake blew his smoke up at the ceiling.
“Did you see Joe’s face yesterday?” He asked.
“No,” I said, “but I heard his mother wouldn’t even look at him.”
Jimmie Jones walked back into the bathroom with a dictionary. He pushed the window up and let it slide back down onto the book.
“You guys talking about Joe?” He laughed.
“Yeah man,” Jake pointed at me. “Tell him what you heard.”
Jimmie threw his cigarette out the window.
“I saw the whole thing. Craig hit Joe with two swings right to the face. The principal and someone else grabbed Joe by his back and ankles. They had him totally airborne and he was still blowing bloody snot rockets at Craig.”
“It was unbelievable,” Jake said.
I left the bathroom. My science teacher was asleep in the desk. I hadn’t realized it yet but the hallway was full of people. A crowd almost knocked me back into the bathroom. I jumped to see over the pack.
One limp kid was on the ground. I couldn’t see his face. Another kid looked like he was kicking him, by the way his body was contorting. I could make out some familiar faces, but something was happening. Nobody looked exactly like themselves. Their war chants sounded like the beginning of a sacrifice.
I smacked my science teacher. He got up just as the classroom door in front of us swung open. Frankie danced out with both fists up, waiting for whatever was coming next. He’d taken his shirt off at some point. It was wrapped around his neck but didn’t cover any tattoos.
Two guys came out after him. One was bleached like Slim Shady. The other I’d only seen jogging around the track. Somehow a circle of students chanting “fight” immediately formed.
My teacher looked at me. He sat back down.
“He’s gonna kill them,” he said. “But he’s twice my size. There’s nothing I can do.”
He was talking about Frankie. When it came down to a matter of meat, two dudes with a protein-shake habit couldn’t make a dent.
Frankie had them both on the ground and bleeding in two hits. I started to cheer with everyone else. Frankie took his shirt and wiped the blood off Slim Shady’s face. Then he put the shirt back on.
We were roaring. Frankie beat his chest like a gorilla. I looked next to me and saw a girl. A girl I really liked. She was popular. One of those girls who goes to Catholic school for a while before she transfers over. She was done with rehab before I smoked my first cigarette. Anyway, we looked at each other. Like lovers in a riot, combat on each side of us. I was still smiling but realized she wasn’t. I dropped my smile. She said, “this isn’t cool” like I was her worst letdown, and then the crowd swallowed her.
By the time last period came people were getting called down to the principal’s office. Our high school, in the course of three weeks, had gone from second safest school in the district to most dangerous. They were suspending everyone. Anyone who was called by the principal got suspended. Unless, of course, they could give up names of people who were thinking about fighting.
A group of girls in the back of class were talking about Adam. Adam was my partner on the basketball team. I was the “3.” The power forward. I dribbled. Shot. Rebounded. Adam was the “5.” He was taller. He rebounded and hooked up my jump shot, or I stole a ball and tossed it to him over everyone’s head. The rest of the team were just faces filling a quota on our court.
The girls said Adam was a “loser.” They said they were glad Jimmie Jones was going to “kick his ass tomorrow.” I didn’t know what to do. Adam was my partner, sure, but I would look like a “loser” if I told them that. Did I owe him? This wasn’t the football team. After a game we didn’t shower together, we just went home. I didn’t say anything.
My dad was picking me up that day and driving me to the game. I saw Jake on the way out.
“Yo.” I said.
“Is Jimmie Jones fighting Adam tomorrow?”
“They’re gonna box on The Hill after school.”
The Hill was really called “Agony Hill.” A little patch of woods between the high school and a development. The legend goes: once upon a time, two kids fell off their sleds and broke their necks. I don’t know if that happened. It was the place everyone got high before school. Or went to cut class.
I got into the car with my father. He started leading me through his pre-game séance. “Remember,” he would say. “K-I-S-S. Keep it simple stupid. When they’re running down the clock remember- K-I-S-S. It’s basketball. You dribble up. You defend back. K-I-S-S.”
He just said things like that for a while. Eventually, I told him about what had been going on at school. Then I told him about Adam.
“You’re not going to stand up for him?” he asked. “He’s your teammate!”
“I know. But they’re not even really fighting.”
“He’s your teammate. What if he hits his head on the floor?”
“They’re not fighting. Everyone is going to The Hill tomorrow to watch them box.”
“What if he falls and hits his head? What if he doesn’t even get hit and he trips over a root? He could fall back and hit his head on a rock. Then he’s dead. Or paralyzed. I’ve seen it. How are you going to look at his mom knowing you could’ve kept her son from being a vegetable but you wanted to be cool? You know what’s not cool? Your friends getting paralyzed. You’ll see.”
Adam and I ran the show that day. We were up by eight points in the last thirty seconds. I gave my dad a thumbs up and suddenly we lost control. They hit a three pointer. Then they hit another three.
My dad was in the bleachers screaming, “K-I-S-S. SLOW THE GAME DOWN!”
The referee handed me the ball to pass it in.
My dad screamed again, “STOP THE MOMENTUM. K-I-S-S. Slow the game down! K-I-S-S.”
I called a timeout. I didn’t even leave the court. I just knew my dad was right. We needed to stop time for a second. Momentum was moving for them.
I passed the ball inbounds to Adam. At half-court they stole it. I already had four fouls on me but they were about to break away for a layup. I intentionally smacked the guy. The referee blew his whistle and I got thrown out of the game. I always got thrown out of the game.
My coach put a scrub in for the last few seconds. We won. Just barely. My dad didn’t say he was proud of me on the way home but I thought he should have.
The next day at school there were no fights. All violence was put on hold until after school. Two opening fights were added to the boxing match before the day ended.
When the bell rang most of the school headed for The Hill. I knew I wasn’t going to stop the fight, but I went anyway.
Each guy was given a set of boxing gloves. The first two matches went quick. A few punches landed. No blood. A lot of dancing. I kept praying for an earthquake but a Godless lot deserved no divine intervention.
I kept to the back of the crowd. I felt sick. Jake and some other guys were walking around with wads of money. Jake had a clipboard in his hand. Taking money. Writing numbers.
Adam never really faced the crowd and that made me feel better. A friend of each pulled the gloves down over their wrists. When Jimmie Jones’s gloves were on he just started swinging. No bell. The first swing hit. Adam’s nose looked like a plum exploded.
Adam hit back a few times but I knew where it was going. Anyone can get brought to that red-level the hard way, but Adam, like me, didn’t have whatever that instinct is to finish it. Even if he won the crowd would turn on him.
I walked down The Hill by myself. A few times the crowd got so loud I thought someone had died. But when I turned around no one was following me out. That girl I liked was pulling out of a parking spot in her white VW Jetta. I asked her for a ride.
“You’re leaving the animals on The Hill?” she asked.
“Just so you know,” I said. “I don’t think fighting is cool.”
She didn’t care at all. Her boyfriend was twenty-five. Nothing was cool to her. On the way home she told me a little about her dad. How he was never proud of her. Not for grades. Or cheerleading.
“What about you?” she asked. “Is your dad ever proud of you?”
“No,” I said. “But at least today I gave him a reason not to be.”
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