Gladiator by Gregory K Shipman
Story of the Month contest entry
Home again and with the return come the memories.
It's hot today; blistering in fact, just like that long-ago day when I was twelve.
I stare at the old brick-front Barber Shop in front of me. This is where it began for me.
A single word that still defines me rattles around in my head.
Gladiators aren't born; they're made. Right? Don't answer. I'm talking to myself.
In 1968 The 'Nam became my second arena.
The soldiers in 'Nam were issued weapons. In my case I was the weapon.
Scenes from the past begin flickering like an old Saturday matinee.
A box of popcorn and an orange drink, please... hold the blood.
"Whatcha doing, DeeKay?"
My best friends and I are hugging the curb outside of Mr. Mike's Barber Shop.
Shading my eyes from the sun's glare I look up at him, "Nothin' much."
He's a short dangerous man... more dangerous than short. He's dressed in summer casuals. Neatly trimmed hair, moustache and goatee glisten in the summer sun.
He's always about his looks.
"Seems some jerk-offs in the barber shop braggin'. Talking 'bout a kid off of Milton Ave. named Low-Boy."
My twelve-year-old heart skips a beat. 'Round here people bet on a street fight faster than they'd look for easy women in hard places and both are as plentiful as pimps and Cadillacs.
At the mention of Low-Boy my three partners begin fidgeting. It must be contagious 'cause I'm fidgeting too.
The man, the short dangerous one; happens to be my father.
"Seems those fools in there sayin' this hell-raiser can beat any kid 'round here and they got 'green' they willin' to dangle to back up the words. We got some bills ain't busy right about now. These dopes don't know from nothin' and I ain't ever been the type to refuse a sucker's money when it's dangled."
My friends catch on. They look at me. I look at the ground noticing dad's shadow is really long then I look up at the real him.
"You know this boy?" he asks.
"I know who he is. He takes lunch money from kids in his school."
"He a bad-ass?"
I hesitate for a second before saying, "I guess he is to the kids gettin' their money taken."
His lower lip crinkles a bit but no smile escapes. "He take your money?"
"We go to different schools."
"He take your money if you went to the same school?"
"Might try," I say.
Another second's hesitation, "I don't give up my money."
My dad, better known as 'Doc', nods.
"You think this Low-Boy can take you?" His dark eyes are tearing into me.
"I don't know?" I stare back.
"You wanna fight him?" His voice goes down a bit while his expression is ice cold.
"No sir." I look straight in his eyes and feel like I'm drowning in the emptiness.
His eyes remind me of lumps of coal.
"He ain't done nothin' to me."
"What's that got to do with it?"
I figure no answer is the best answer to a question like that so I keep my mouth shut.
There's going to be a fight and there's going to be blood. Welcome to my world. Wipe your feet on the mat before coming in, there's already enough crap in here and I ain't got a broom.
"You don't wanna fight him?"
"But will you?"
"Yessir." I keep lookin' in my dad's eyes. The darkness keeps lookin' back.
"Because you want me to and you're betting money on it."
He just nods a little and turns away. He tells his friends it's on. Was there ever any doubt?
My three partners, Dink and the twins, sitting next to me on the curb are bug-eyed. Whoever wrote this script has horns and a pitchfork. I wonder if his red tail gets in the way when he walks?
I know my dad wants me to be tough but sometimes tough and dumb ain't that far apart.
"You want a ride over?" asks my father.
"I'll walk over with my friends. It's just a few blocks."
If it is, it's my only one so far.
"That damn Low Boy is an animal!" whines Gordy, one of the twins, "Why you want us to go watch you get murdered?"
"I need my friends to carry my dead and bleeding body home on my shield."
Dink looks at me with a mischievous grin. "What shield, stupid? You ain't got one."
"Use a trash can lid but try and find a clean one."
They laugh. So do I. Cryin' is a sissy thing and is held against you for a lifetime and a half.
Gordy pipes up, "You're going to owe us big time for this, Dee."
As we walk towards Milton Ave. I reply, "Can't collect from a dead man."
We see a small group of men when we get there. My dad is leaning on his car smoking a cigarette. As always he looks like he's made for this life. He's at ease... never uncomfortable... never scared... never wrong. To him it is what it is... period.
He nods to me and looks over at a kid standing by some steps. Two men are talking to him. The kid is Low-Boy, who is big enough to block out the sun and dumb enough to misspell it. He looks over at us with a grin on his face. I would grin back but my frozen jaw might crack.
Dink and the twins peel off. Dad, squinting from his cigarette smoke, glances at my opponent.
"You scared?" he asks me.
"Almost everyday." I reply.
"Practice makes perfect," says my dad, "although some things you don't wanna be too perfect at."
I know there's some deep meaning in that statement but my brain's too busy trying to figure out why I'm stupid enough to be here.
"Well go kick his ass," my father says, "I got other stuff to do today."
"How do I do that?"
"Hit him more than he hits you, hit him harder than he hits you and make him hurt more."
His cigarette dances as he speaks.
Hit more, hit harder and hurt him more. Thank you father. It's these little tidbits I'll treasure in my old age.
The 'shade-tree' looks over at me and snarls, "You ready, skinny boy."
Sticks and stones, Mr. Peanut-Brain, is what I'm thinking but what I say is nothing. It reduces overall confusion.
I look at the small crowd that's getting bigger but it's just a collection of shadows. It's me, him, and the upcoming pain. Both mine and his. Lord if you're not busy could you please notice that I'm about to be.
We both move towards each other and he's still talking. Damn blabber-mouth!
He's slow and I can tell from the way he holds his hands he isn't used to real boxing... just beating up kids and taking their lunch money. I box at the Rec Center... sometimes.
I keep my arms loose by my sides so I won't tire and I begin to dance slowly around him to his right. Most guys are right-handed so they naturally move better to their left. Gives them more power when they swing the right. He moves awkwardly as he follows me. So he is right-handed. I rotate back to his left, carefully putting my hands up.
He follows and his footwork is clumsy and awkward, but he seems more comfortable moving in this direction. I will try to keep him moving to keep him moving in the other. When he throws punches they will be awkward and less effective. Instead of a mountain falling on me, it will be like a hill falling on me!
I figure I can tire him out by making him throw punches but I also don't want to be his punching bag.
Wrestling is out. I weigh about as much as his left leg and he'd turn me into a chocolate pretzel.
I bob, weave and jab. He continues to follow and swing. Sometimes I hit him, sometimes he hits me. I just keep dancing and praying... both are good for the soul. At least my music teacher says I should pray for a right foot to replace one of the left.
It's hot. Good. Maybe he'll drop dead from the heat. Fat-headed jerk!
I can hear people yelling, cheering, encouraging. Background noise. I keep moving, darting, punching and dancing away when he tries to get close. I'm not getting tired. I spend my time running up and down basketball courts instead of taking lunch money from kids... which I'm sure is a low energy activity.
But I'm hurting and I'm bleeding. Low Boy is bleeding too, but not as much as me. He is, however; breathing hard. His clumsy feet are getting clumsier and he's grabbing now more than swinging.
Suddenly one of those 'grabbing-more-than-swinging' punches catches me right in the face. My knees buckle and my vision blurs. 'Pain!' says my body. 'Oh No!' says my brain.
But the dummy stands there pointing at me and yelling to the small crowd instead of finishing me off.
He's waving his arms in the air like Joe Louis. I'm working to catch my breath, steady my legs and clear my head when the Temper takes over.
Did I mention my Temper?
It's a gift I'd like to give back. I inherited it from my dad who inherited it from his. They embraced theirs. I fight mine. I gave it a name. Makes talking back and forth easier. It's the Red Voice.
Because of it I see red and all I feel is a cold rage. In this case not just because of Low Boy but because I'm here; and I'm here because I'm too scared to say 'No'. Too scared to say, 'This is stupid!'
I know my Temper lives for craziness just like this. It thrives on it. The more the better and in this neighborhood there will always be more.
Through my blurred vision I look over at my dad leaning on his car casually lighting another cigarette. He shrugs at me as he tosses the dying match in the curb. He's not concerned. Not upset. To him I'll win. He believes tough guys will do the tough things and that's his world. I'm just an underage visitor.
I don't always understand my dad but I finally do understand this... I took the job, I made a commitment and so I have to follow through.
While Low-Boy's celebrating my defeat I ignore the pain and decide that "tough" is the best choice.
"Hey stupid," I call to Low-Boy, "the fight's over here."
Surprise shows on his face. He probably thought it was over.
It ain't over and this ain't your school-yard gig! Get ready to crack some concrete when you fall!
He plods over to finish me off. Probably thinks I don't stand a chance. His big mistake was in not finishing me when I was down. I raise my hands and move my feet slightly as though dancing. He raises his hands and moves closer to end this.
I kick him in the balls.
Actually I tried to kick right through his balls. He screams and collapses. It's a girly scream which isn't going to do his reputation much good. I lean over and hit him three times in the face as hard as I can... and then once more! After all, practice does make perfect.
Ain't no white-hat-good-guys in this fight. It's just me and I've had enough of this craziness for one day.
I straighten up and look down at Low Boy and feel sorry for him. But then I think, 'He's down there and I'm up here and I like up here better'.
Better you than me, Bandito. Fight over!
I skip the celebration dance and the waving-to-the-crowd part.
Dink walks over and whispers something in Low-Boy's ear and then follows me over to my dad. The twins fall in line.
I walk up to my dad as he pushes himself off the car.
"You kicked him in the balls," he says in a flat and emotionless voice.
"Hard as I could," I respond. Less flat. More emotion.
"Was that fair?" He almost smiles.
"Don't know 'bout that but it was smart."
His lower lip does the crinkle thing again.
He calls one of his friends over as he reaches in his pocket and pulls out two five's. The man copies him and pulls two more and hands them to my dad.
My father holds the bills toward me. Dink's eyes are bugging. I take the money and stick it in my pocket.
The man who I've struggled to understand holds out his hand and I shake it. I, like him, was born in Hell. He doesn't mind being here. I hate it but it's nice to get a paycheck from it every once in a while.
Dad and his partners walk over to the other men to get paid. And they surely will.
Low-Boy is off the ground and limping away. I'm not his favorite person today but then who would want to be.
We head back to the Barber Shop, richer than when we left.
Dink says my lip is swollen, nose is bleeding, face is cut and there's blood on my elbows, shirt and hands. I tell him I know it without him saying it. But all in all, he's right. I'm definitely beat up.
"Does it hurt?" asks Dink.
"Yeah," I reply, "But the money in my pocket sure makes it feel better."
Butchie, looks at me and declares, "You kicked him in his balls."
"Yep," I reply, "But I was aiming for his nuts."
Butchie, who is the slower twin, looks confused, "Huh?"
"Butchie," says Gordy; the smarter one, "They're the same thing."
"Why'd you hit him when he was down?" asks Gordy.
"Because it was a lot easier than when he was up." I respond.
"Hey, Dink," I ask while using my shirt-tail to wipe my face, "What did you whisper to Low-Boy?"
"I told him if he comes lookin' for you he'd best be lookin' for all four of us," responds my best friend.
"No problemo, Amigo. Four against one ain't exactly worry-time for us.
"Amen," chime in the twins.
Once we get back to the barber shop I go in to ask Mr. Mike, the owner, if I can use the bathroom to clean up.
Mr. Mike, having heard the news, gives me a thumbs up.
"What the hell happened to you, colored boy?" one of the old men sitting in the barber shop asks.
"I fell down." I reply.
"You musta fell down the Grand Canyon," he laughs as the rest of the old farts sitting there join in.
"Twice!" chimes in one of his over-the-flippin'-hill partners.
"During a rock slide!" hee-haws another.
I decide that God let some people live way too long.
In the bathroom the soap and water works fine for my outsides. Too bad there's no 'soap' for my insides.
After my clean-up we down a round of NeHi orange sodas I bought from Mr. Mike.
We pass the time being kids. We don't get that opportunity too often.
Later we decide to head for the movies.
Outside the theater we slap hands with friends, wave or stick tongues out at girls we know and stare at girls we don't. At the window I slip two one dollar bills in and proudly say, "Gimme four tickets."
That feels real good.
Pushing our way into the lobby, I notice the second show playing is 'Demetrius and the Gladiators' with Victor Mature. I tap Dink on the shoulder and point at the poster in the 'Now Playing' case. Dink grins and we both recite together, "We who are about to die salute you!" Gordy looks at us and shakes his head. Butchie is already heading for the candy counter.
Somewhere inside my head my Red Voice speaks to me, 'Welcome to the arena, Gladiator. Remember that victory is everything.'
I respond with a finger raised high. Since I'm generous I make it my longest finger.
I follow my friends to the candy counter, somehow knowing this asshole inside of me will be my biggest and most frequent opponent in life.
|© Copyright 2011
Gregory K Shipman
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