1. Karate Class
My instructor had chosen me, the scrawny teenage equivalent of an Everlast bag, to stand in the middle of the circle. All around me stood my classmates, fifteen men, each the keeper of his secret number. I hopped around, my fists in gloves, the left at my waist, the right thumbing my nose. I hopped and snorted. “Cut it out!” one guy said. “This?” I suggested, thumbing my nose. “Shhh!” my instructor whistled. “He’s making me laugh!” said the guy. “Shhh!” my instructor whistled. “But in a real situation,” I reasoned, “I could do this kind of crap to disorient—like, uh—fifteen guys dressed in karate outfits who’d happened to pick a fight with me.” I caught my instructor; he had dropped his forehead into his palm. A pause ensued that grew ominous. The cloudy day radiated dry dirty light. “Eight!” shouted my instructor. Nobody moved on my periphery. A set of eyes square in front of me betrayed the impending motions of an assailant, number eight, charging toward my back, and as I wheeled to deflect a sure midriff kick, a fist puffy with the foam padding of a red glove divided my face into districts of grief. In time, both eyes would blue-blacken and a piece of my nose would harden into a chipped edge, but at the moment, a classmate (last name S——) had intended to batter the back of my skull, a lunge that had sinister implications. He didn’t high five, didn’t apologize. He’d been a combat veteran in a forgotten war, not a shameful war, but he’d been a veteran of dim, desperate battles which nobody could name. I hadn’t heard this; I’d overheard this. A few weeks later, he broke wind so violently in the lavatory he blew many squares of toilet paper outward from the stall in which he’d been seated—an impossible fart. After tapping out the last of a whiz, and reorienting my protective cup, I asked him whether he’d done a lot of that kind of thing in the army. A few beats expired, he in the stall, me at the sink. “I mean,” I clarified, “delivering a cheap shot during practice.” Two low blows don’t a fair fight make—I know, I know.
After bidding my chums goodbye, after trouncing down the staircase from the railroad-style jazz flat, high on the free horns of Vandermark and Rempis, I turned toward home on a foggy Sunday night just shy of mild, in February ‘07. The corner of 14th and U glowed with varying levels of intensity: fast food chicken, sneaker emporium, city services shuttered, walkup hookah, gush of white streetlamp, traffic lamp flashing caution, uneven code of bus hydraulics. A block later, the islands at the gas station did modest business and the articulated convenience store did modest business, cab drivers and maybe a single thumping sports utility vehicle. The firehouse slept. The police precinct house slept, ringed by a circle of vacant cop cars. A block later, I cruised beyond one set of basement steps too many, when a large figure—“robust flab”, I want to specify, but a head taller and impossible girth of arms, too—bounded toward me, punching me on the outcropping of bone (or what is that?) behind my right ear. A second night overtook the first night, like a wash of garbled language, darker, but lit, the borders unfocused, but constellated, a level of blackness that implied, perhaps, just one more level of blackness—before dire repose. In this second night, I continued to walk, if staggered. Hands searched inside my bomber jacket, the outer pockets of my bomber jacket, and endlessly, the two back pockets of my dungarees. I instructed my body several times to twist free before I did, delivering a few severe impersonations of competent self-defense which nevertheless broke the fellow’s posture against a brick sidewalk corrupted by decades of anxious tree roots. I bounded into a convenience store, but that wasn’t home. I bounded into a coffee shop, but that wasn’t home. The second darkness dissipated, returning me to a comprehensible position at a cross street near my apartment. Inside, on my couch, I discovered what the mugger could not: my wallet, pocketed in front, the location of which bought precious, revitalizing moments.
3. KIX Concert
I attended a KIX concert years ago in a shopping mall, maybe in a hotel ballroom. At some point, a few hundred colorful balloons fell upon the band, thus the venue had to feature balloon dropping capabilities, even as the rainbow of these festive items choked the lyrics of the power ballad—“…when I go out in the evening / to the night clubs / and I get my head just right…”—that the hair metal singer had been warbling. Yes, I wore a mullet haircut. No, I did not own a Camaro. (I drove a pre-owned red Honda, thank you.) A few weeks earlier, I had performed a valorous act but had injured my good paw, a valorousness which required surgery, and the surgery required a clunky club-like cast that involved most of my arm below the elbow. Then, I’m standing at the bar, drinking from a flagon of flat beer with my off-hand, when a meathead comes up to me, like a meathead outta hell, the hell of the concert. Everything in the world had rejected this dude except the fifty pound Weiders at the gym. “Nobody’s signed your cast,” he said. “I’m waiting for the right person,” I admitted. “Your arm’s not broken,” he alleged, jabbing a finger into my sternum. “In fact,” I added, “it’s under repair.” A vein ticked in the meathead’s neck, choked by the blue band of his t-shirt collar. A syllable like “Roo?” came out of his mouth. He projected the sorrowful hunger of a formidable dog who’d been ordered—by a turtle flute—to bite the air beneath my chin. He clipped me on the button with a slow, muscular uppercut. My entire body jiggled downward, toward the floor, which stopped it, but forced the jiggle to return, my casted arm rattling around, my neck rubbery. A minnow of beer—like a boxer’s mouthpiece—leapt out of the flagon I maintained with my off-hand, but I kept my footing. “Whew,” I huffed. Personnel surrounded us, friends, bouncers, friends of bouncers, until the matter got sorted out, the perpetrator begging forgiveness. “I thought it was a prank,” he said, “like a tough guy contest. Nobody signed his cast!” I waved for a pen. “Here,” I proclaimed. “Be the first.” And he signed it, “K-I-X ass!”, the typo perhaps unintentional, the punch taken.