On a Saturday in the middle of June, about a month before we moved to California one of the neighborhood kids, Dave Brinks, felt he had unfinished business with my older brother, Matt. Everyone knew we were moving since we’d had a realtor sign in our front yard for months. Over the last week, the SOLD placard was hung on it. Dave thought it was time to resolve the beef he had with Matt before we moved away, so he challenged him to a fight. I don’t know what Matt did to incite Dave to want to get his pound of flesh, but I believe it was probably an accumulation of things.
Matt was the alpha in our neighborhood. He was the first born in my family, and he was one of the oldest kids in a group of over ten in our neighborhood. Aggression, fearlessness, and a deep mean streak set him apart. If you challenged him, he wasn’t afraid to punch you, choke you, or knock you down. As his younger brother, I knew this better than anyone. Despite this, he was still liked, as much as he was feared, by most of the kids. He didn’t bully just to bully. He did it to maintain control, to be the leader of our neighborhood gang.
The kids my brothers and I played with lived no more than two blocks away. Our boundaries had been established early on. As children, we were explorers. Up until about five years old we were confined to exploring our own yards. From our yards, we saw other kids, and we were given permission from our moms to explore the yards across the street and down the block. We were kept within calling distance, thus creating the initial boundary.
As we grew up, we explored farther and found others like Dave and Steve Brinks, who lived about four blocks away. These discoveries were approached with skepticism, even hostility. A Lord of the Flies dynamic. It didn’t always remain that way. Sometimes we befriended other kids, but not Dave and Steve Brinks. They never wanted anything to do with us, and we didn’t want any-thing to do with them. My dad said the Brinks were weirdos. We made fun of them to varying degrees, called them names as we rode past on our bikes. Their parents didn’t want them playing with us. We never got along. After all, they rejected us.
I was outside ricocheting a baseball off the front steps and catching it in my glove. It was a way of playing catch when there was no one around to play with, or if I just felt like playing alone. My younger brother Tim, who was nine years old, raced down the street on his stingray with the banana seat. He dumped the bike in the middle of the yard and stormed into the house, bang-ing through the front door. I followed him.
“Matt! Matt! Dave Brinks wants to fight you!” Tim said.
Matt was lying on the floor, paging through the newspaper. Our dad was on the couch doing the same. I saw a headline in the sports section, DOC ELLIS NO HITS PADRES. I would read that article tonight when Matt and Dad were done with the paper. Matt looked up, but he didn’t say anything. I’m sure a thousand things immediately ran through his mind.
“What? Why?” Dad asked, as he set the paper on his lap.
“He doesn’t like Matt,” Tim said. “The Brinks are a bunch of fems. That’s what I called ‘em when I rode by. Dave ran and caught me and said he was gonna pound me.” Tim got a catch in his throat like he was going to cry. He probably cried when Dave threatened him. “I told the fem that Matt would pound him. He said he would pound you, Matt. He told me to tell you that. He’s such a fem.”
Mom overheard this. “Timothy, don’t use that word,” she yelled from the kitchen over “Let It Be” on the radio. That song was played a lot.
“Why does he want to fight you, Matt?” Mom asked.
“Nobody likes the Brinks,” I wanted to say, but I kept quiet. Everyone knew that.
“I hate him. He hates me,” Matt spouted.
“Don’t use that word.” To my mom, the word “hate” was about as bad as any other four letter word. I think it was about the power that could be imbued from it. “And that’s no reason to fight,” she added.
“Why not?” Tim asked. He knew we had fought for less. Giving someone the stink-eye was reason enough to get punched in our world. He was nine years old and he already knew that.
“It’s Matt’s decision,” Dad snarled. Mom usually backed off when he did.
“Hmm,” she countered, but that was all.
Matt looked at Dad like he was looking for a reprieve. He hated Dave Brinks, but I could tell he didn’t want to fight him. I could also tell that Dad wanted Matt to fight. In these situations, Dad believed you didn’t back down. There was humiliation in turning the other cheek. It was a sign of weakness to walk away.
Dad did not protect us from violence. He imposed it.
“Matt, what are you going to do?” Dad asked, like he was giving Matt a choice, but there was that familiar edge in his voice. It was the pattern we all recognized. It began subdued, but always escalated, until any beating Matt might receive from Dave Brinks would be less than the punishment he would receive from Dad if he refused to fight.
My dad carried the rage of a volcano. It erupted viciously. About a year ago when I was ten, he insisted I go out and play football with my friends. I didn’t want to because I knew he would come out and play with us. The more I resisted, the angrier he became, until he gave me a straight open handed shot to the mouth. He staggered me and I saw stars, but he didn’t knock me down. I ended up with a bloody fat lip and a headache.
The neighborhood kids loved it when Dad played with us. For my brothers and me it was a nightmare. Invariably, we would end up in tears. If we were on his team, he would get angry if we dropped the ball, struck out, or missed a shot. If we were on the opposing team he not only had to beat us, but humiliate us in the process. If we struck out, missed a shot, or dropped a pass, Dad would tease us mercilessly, especially if he was the one who struck us out, blocked our shot, or knocked the ball out of our hands. All the guys gave each other a little crap during the game, but Dad took it to a different level. When my brothers and I got upset with him, he would say, “Don’t cry. You gonna cry? Don’t cry, little girl.”
He raised his level of play and effort to make sure he won, but as we got older, bigger, and stronger, he had to increasingly try harder. My best friend John, was twelve and already taller than my dad, who claimed to be five-six but was more like five-four. John was lanky, not nearly as strong as my dad, but far more athletic, and could shoot a jump shot over him, or hit any fastball he hurled at him. That’s why my dad wanted to be on John’s team, and John liked to be on the opposing team. John was a competitor. My dad just liked to win, and he was a poor loser.
Matt vulnerably looked at Dad. “Should I fight him?”
I know he wanted to say, “Do I have to?”
“Stand up,” Dad said. “Put your hands up like this. You know, like I showed you.” Dad bought us twenty-ounce Rocky Graziano signature red leather boxing gloves for Christmas last year. We beat on each other with them, and it wasn’t long before they were getting soft from the pounding.
Matt put his hands up and tucked his elbows. He threw a jab then a right, shadow boxing.
“Is he gonna fight?” Tim asked excitedly.
Dad nodded. “Go tell Dave Brinks to come over.”
Tim bolted out the door and hopped on his bike. In about a half hour Dave and Steve Brinks walked down Johnson Street from the west towards our house. They were tall and thin, Lincolnesque. Steve was the taller of the two. He was fourteen. Dave was Matt’s age. Both were taller than I remembered. I hadn’t seen them in a while. They had outgrown the length of their blue jeans, now high-waters. Steve had brown hair parted on the side, cut above the ears. Dave had blond hair and bangs, worn like Matt, Tim, me, and almost every other kid in the neighborhood, except for Larry and Gary who always had a buzz.
From up the east side of the block came John, the best athlete, who lived exactly one block away; Gary and Larry, the fat kids who lived two doors away from John; Joey from the staunch Catholic family across the street from us; dumb Paul from three doors down from Joey; Joe, the richest kid from down around the corner; and Eric and Todd, whose family owned the boat landing and lived two blocks away. There were a few others we played with on occa-sion, but this was the core of our neighborhood gang.
Dad gave the Brinks boys a nod and a curt, “Hello.”
“Dave wants to fight Matt,” Steve said. I was amazed at his confidence.
“I want to fight him,” Matt snapped. He wanted to redefine who was the headliner and who was the opponent. Matt appeared revived by the support of all the neighborhood kids creating a ring in our yard around the fighters. I hung back a bit outside the circle behind John. Matt stood beside Dad.
Dave was over a head taller than Matt, his long arms hanging at his sides. Matt put his hands up to protect his face and walked slowly towards Dave. Thock! Dave landed the first punch to the top of Matt’s head.
“Hit ‘em, Matt!”
“Knock the crap outta him!”
Matt launched a wild overhand right that landed with a meaty crack on Dave’s left cheek, which immediately made the pasty-faced Brink turn pink. Dave took a step back and the crowd roared, but he countered with another right to the top of Matt’s head. Thock! Matt winced, and Dave took the opportunity, so he followed it with Thock! Thock! The shots were hard and Matt was stunned, incapable of retaliating. It made me angry and knotted up. I looked at Dad, who seemed really pissed, to stop the fight. Do the right thing. Save your son this beating, this humiliation.
Everyone tried to will Matt to action.
“Hit him, Matt!” John yelled.
“Hit the fem!” Larry added.
“Kick his woman ass!” Paul topped all, and we looked at him for a second acknowledging it.
While the other kids shouted at ringside, I stood with my hands balled into fists. I had mixed feelings about a victory for Matt. If he won, he wouldn’t be humble about it. The victory would only affirm his dominance, and he would feel compelled to make every kid in the neighborhood comply with any demand he had. Everyone would acquiesce like always, until they got so sick of him they’d avoid playing with him until his head deflated, but I would rebel, anger Matt, then get chased down like a gazelle fleeing a cheetah. When he was close enough he would slug me in the back between my shoulder blades. The blow would send a shock through my body, momentarily paralyzing me, and I would tumble to the ground. At this point I would usually be crying, so he wouldn’t feel the need to inflict any more pain.
Everyone had experienced a beating from Matt. I’m sure everyone remem-bered their personal moment, even though it had been years, when Matt took them to task, establishing his dominance. Until now, we had perceived Matt as indomitable. I’m sure everyone else had fantasized about beating up Matt just like I did, and as we watched the fight, we also became opponents analyzing his vulnerabilities. Still, I don’t think anybody thought they could beat Matt, except for maybe John. He had height and reach just like Dave Brinks.
Matt stood within arms’ reach, his guard up trying to cover the top of his head, which exposed his chin. Dave took advantage and landed a straight shot to Matt’s mouth. It bled immediately, and Matt began to cry.
The crowd groaned. The tension had peaked; it would have only taken one of us to attack, and all of us would have leaped. Steve would have to be dealt with also, but there were eleven of us, not including Dad. Our sheer weight, especially with Larry and Gary, would have held them down to pummel. We had done this before under different circumstances, but this time everyone watched, as Matt was reduced to nothing. Everyone knew what this felt like.
Dad stopped the fight.
“Go home,” Dad said to the Brinks. Everyone took it as a cue and retreat-ed from our yard in different directions. The defeat had not just been Matt’s. We had viewed our gang as the most formidable with the toughest leader. Things were changing. Maybe it was a good thing we were moving.
Matt walked gingerly into the house with a hand over his bleeding mouth, blood dripping onto his white t-shirt. Tim followed Matt, and Dad closed the door behind them.
I went back to bouncing the ball off the steps, until John wandered back over with his glove and a grass stained baseball. We threw each other grounders and pop ups until my Mom called me in for supper.
This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.