There was no way this was happening. He was fearless, for sure, this shirtless little man with stringy, dark hair to his shoulders. But there he was, on top of Brando, sweat flying in every direction as he flailed at his head. He wiped his eyes with his glove and spit on the ground.
It wasn’t a fair fight. Wasn’t really supposed to be a fight at all. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
Thirty years ago? Forty?
We were taking our turns boxing against Brando. Gary, Kevin, and me. I was first.
Brando could have laid any one of us out with one punch, but I wasn’t scared. Because we weren’t really fighting. We were role playing as much as anything.
I moved in circles around him, peering over my gloves. I’m Ali. Lithe. Quick. Float like a butterfly.
A quick jab.
Barely even touched his gloves in front of his face. He was smiling. I was just trying to look the part.
Sting like a bee. Though really, there wasn’t much stinging going on.
Brando’s the plodding Frazier. And true to form, he was much stronger, but I was quicker.
Jab. Jab. Jab.
Then a quick right to his head.
Brando blocked it easily with his massive forearms. It’s what I expected. The last thing I wanted was to connect and have him come after me. We were just fooling around.
Brando threw a few jabs of his own, but they never connected as I leaned back out of his reach.
I circled to my left, on my toes. Dancing. The Ali shuffle. That earned mock whoops of praise from the other guys.
Maybe I really was a boxer. Maybe I had what it took. Maybe with a little training I could learn to throw a solid punch and maybe…
And then I was on my back looking up at white, fuzzy clouds against a blue sky. The side of my face was numb. I never saw it, but it had to be a left hook, because I was watching his right hand, knowing it would follow one of his easy jabs. But it didn’t. I heard the howls and then the laughter. I sat up, my eyes watering as I tried to focus on Brando’s canvas sneakers in front of me. To my right, sandals. Gary. To my left, Kevin was barefoot. He walked to me and I thought he was going to see if I was all right. He bent over and pulled off the gloves. It was his turn. I sat there for a few more minutes.
Kevin was the guy most likely to spend time in an eight by ten cell. In school, he couldn’t help being a smart-ass. Seemed like it was just his nature. Even with the teachers. He was always being sent to the principal’s office. Always in a fight with someone. And when he fought, he went for blood. No wrestling matches with Kevin. A punch in the mouth was just to get things warmed up. A knee to the face and a broken nose was how his fights usually ended. Or so I was told. I only saw one of his fights and it was so frightening I left before it was over. Everyone was scared of him. Everyone but Brando.
I don’t know if Kevin had ever watched a Muhammed Ali fight. Don’t know if he knew who Joe Frazier was or George Foreman or Sonny Liston. Don’t know if he knew the difference between a boxing match and a street fight. Don’t know if he knew he couldn’t grab or push or kick or bite or put a knee to the face. He didn’t look like a boxer and if not for the pads weighing down his fists of stone, I would have bet money that Brando was going down.
He stood, arms to his side, waiting for Brando to do something. Brando laughed, then threw a serious jab and hit Kevin square in the face. Kevin countered with a hard right that Brando easily slipped. He laughed again.
Kevin faked a left then threw another right. Brando blocked it with his arms. Then Kevin feigned the right again and came from the other direction with a looping left hook. Brando managed to get his gloves up just as the punch smacked him in the side of head. Had it been a little more direct, it might have been big trouble. As it was, it it merely signaled to Brando that Kevin had a lesson to learn. They sneered at each other. Something was about to happen. It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a real fight.
Kevin backed off, threw a couple of hard jabs that Brando slipped easily. Then Kevin went downstairs. A right to the side of Brando, who let out a grunt as the air left his lungs. Then a hard left in the middle of his stomach. Brando doubled over, and as Kevin was loading up another right, Brando pushed him backward. Brando straightened up and I could see there was no trace of a smile, no play in the eyes. Kevin knew he was in trouble.
Hey, sorry, Brando. Low blow.
Appeasement got Neville Chamberlain nowhere and it didn’t help Kevin. Maybe a little. Looking back on history makes judgments easier. Kevin still got what was coming to him, a brutal combination that bloodied his lip and nearly sent him rolling down the hill toward Gary’s back yard. But it could have been worse. Brando could have drawn out the punishment, could have really made him pay.
Kevin got to his feet and walked back up the hill toward the rest of us. He untied the gloves with his teeth and flung them toward Brando’s feet.
You’re one tough son-of-a-bitch.
He laughed as he said it. It was over. The equivalent of the lessor dog on its back, submitting to the alpha. Brando grabbed him in a headlock and tapped his head a few times with his gloved fist. Then he pushed him away. Kevin forced another laugh as he soaked up the blood running down his lip with his shirttail.
So that was it. What next? We were an easily distracted bunch. We had gathered that day to play music. Or try to play music. Brando, who had somehow acquired a bass guitar and learned the opening riff of Smoke on the Water, thought he needed a band. I had a guitar and knew three chords so I was in. I don’t know why Kevin was chosen as the singer. As far as I knew, he had no musical background at all, but I did sense a dangerous charisma, like Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger. Maybe that’s all we needed. And then there was Gary.
Gary was a quiet guy. He had no interest in taking on Brando, even though he probably knew more about boxing than the rest of us. It was Brando who had noticed the boxing gloves hanging from a nail in the garage and suggested we give it a go. They were Gary’s brother’s gloves and I have no doubt that he and his brother had sparred, but I got the feeling that he had no patience for high-school kids sullying the sweet science. Yeah, Gary was too brainy for our little group. He loved electronics and was always tinkering with something. Later that day we’d tool around on a mini-bike he had built. But Gary had a drum set and could keep a beat so there we were at his house.
Gary gathered the gloves and we headed toward the garage.
And then came Lawrence.
He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the driveway, looking down on us. Brando and Kevin exchanged a glance and it was Brando who made first contact.
I had no idea who he was, this skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brando and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.
And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?
But I could see it coming.
So Brando knew him.
Lawrence got off his bike and dropped it to the curb. He walked bow-legged down the gravel driveway, limping a little, or maybe not quite a limp, but something was wrong with his gait that made him look like he could fall apart if his foot hit a gopher hole at the wrong angle.
Kevin wiped his lip one last time and spoke.
Lawrence. How the hell are you?
Lawrence stopped, cocked his head to one side and peered through squinted eyelids as he looked at Kevin.
Do I know you? A slight nasal twang.
Oh yeah. Kevin took a couple of steps toward him. We go way back.
The expression on Lawrence’s face didn’t change. Still studying. Still trying to find something familiar.
I couldn’t tell if Kevin was just messing with Lawrence or if the story he told him actually happened.
Down by the river a couple of months ago. We were drinking and smoking weed. Don’t you remember?
Maybe. Them funny cigarettes made me sick. Was you there?
Kevin rattled off names of other people who were there. I recognized some. Older kids.
Kevin continued. You were telling us you were part injun.
Lawrence raised his head a little and looked Kevin square in the eyes.
I am. Cherokee.
Easy, Chief, I ain’t looking to start nothing. Kevin took another step toward Lawrence and threw a left and a right to his midsection, pulling his punches before making contact. Lawrence flinched and pulled his arms in front of his stomach, but it would have been too late had the punches been real.
You’ve got good reflexes, Lawrence. Kevin glanced at Brando. Think you could go a round with him?
Gary had stopped halfway to the garage and stood watching, boxing gloves in his hands. No, we’re done. He turned and started walking toward the garage, but Brando caught up to him and took the gloves.
Gary spoke softly. Come on, Brando. Take it easy.
I’m not going to hurt him. Just going have a little fun.
Kevin had set the table. Brando was going to serve. He held one glove out for Lawrence and with no protest whatsoever, he slipped his hand in the glove.
Have you ever boxed, Lawrence?
Yeah, I’ve boxed.
His response was unconvincing. Brando put the other glove on and tied the laces. Then he slipped the gloves back on his own hands. I was with Gary on this one. There was something about Lawrence. Innocent isn’t quite the right word. Naive, maybe. I could see that he didn’t know he was being taken advantage of. Didn’t know they were laughing at him, not with him. Didn’t know that he was a victim. But who was I to stop it?
Yeah. Who was I. Wrong guy in the wrong crowd.
Not exceptionally smart. Not stupid, either, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about electronics or building a mini-bike. I was no Gary. Teachers liked me because I was quiet and never caused any trouble. Unlike Kevin, I was the least likely to end up in jail. I always followed the rules. And that thing about the three guitar chords? Only a slight exaggeration. I was no musician. All of this combined to make me easily forgettable, a trait I carry with me to this day.
But over the years I’ve learned that people see me like they see a friendly dog. There are dogs you know to stay away from. Pit bulls and Dobermans. There are annoying dogs. Terriers and Chihuahuas. The are the popular dogs that everyone loves. Retrievers. And then there’s the mutt. Just a regular dog that keeps to itself, doesn’t bark a lot, doesn’t nip at your heels doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it and is no threat to rip your face off. That’s me.
So what was I doing there with Kevin the pit bull, and Brando the German shepherd, and Gary – well, what was Gary? Border collie, maybe? And Lawrence, let’s just say he was a free-range breed of his own.
I was there because of Brando.
It wasn’t that long ago that he was the new kid in the neighborhood. Moved in with his mother and sister. I never knew anything about a father who wasn’t there. Before he grew to be the behomoth that no one would bother, he was a slightly overweight, soft kid with red hair. Might have been a target himself. So when he discovered the harmless mutt that would be friends with anyone, we started hanging out together. And as his body and confidence grew, so did his circle of friends. I learned that he was pretty sharp, this wild, beast of a boy, and guys like Gary challenged his intellect. But there was a side of him that craved adventure. He once rode a bicycle down Elm Street, the steepest street in our neighborhood. At the end of Elm Street was a block wall. The bicycle had no brakes. He wore no shoes. He tried to stop and tore up his feet. And then hit the wall. The bike was ruined. He was able to hobble home and the legend of Brando was born.
It’s no surprise that he would start hanging out with guys like Kevin.
So there you have it. Who am I in this pack of alpha dogs? I stayed silent as Lawrence banged his gloved fists together.
They moved to the level spot in the yard that had served as the boxing ring. Lawrence wobbled as he walked, the over-sized gloves hanging by his side. Gary tried one last time.
Come on, Brando. You’re three times his size.
Brando winked at Gary.
Lawrence turned around, holding the gloves out to his side, as if ready to throw a punch.
Don’t matter. I’ll kick his butt.
We laughed. Gary shook his head and threw up his arms. He walked to Lawrence and pulled the gloves up high in front of his face.
If you’re gong to do this, keep your hands up. Try to block his punches. Then he pushed Lawrence’s feet with his own, spreading his stance to shoulder-width, one foot slightly in front of the other.
Are you left-handed, Lawrence?
I throw a ball with my left hand, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Gary adjusted his stance for a southpaw boxer. Then he whispered to Lawrence.
Just keep your hands in front of your face. Keep moving. Throw a jab now and then and don’t do anything crazy. Just let him have his fun.
Lawrence tried to brush the hair from his face and rubbed the worn leather across his eye.
Brando was anxious to start the show.
Come on, Angelo, enough training. Let’s get it on.
Brando held out his gloves for Lawrence to tap, the age-old sign of respect that boxers engage in before trying to knock each other’s brains out. Apparently Lawrence was unfamiliar with the tradition.
He jumped up and swung a wild right hand over Brando’s arms and across his nose. Brando was stunned. He reached up with his glove and touched his nose. Blood flowed onto the thumb and his eyes watered. Before he could react, Lawrence had come from the other side and slapped a left to the side of Brando’s head.
This thing was out of control already. Gary yelled at Lawrence, trying to get his attention, trying to get him to back off, maybe save him from the beating that was sure to come. But it was too late.
Lawrence came at Brando again, this time launching himself right into the chest of Brando, and though he was a skinny runt, he hit Brando at just the right angle with just the right momentum to knock him backwards. They stumbled onto the ground, Lawrence on top, pummeling Brando in the face with everything he had. For a moment, I really thought Lawrence was going to kill him.
Gary moved to pull Lawrence back but before he could, Brando had gathered his senses and tossed him aside. He got up and pulled back his foot to kick Lawrence, but Lawrence rolled out of the way and was circling behind Brando as his foot sailed through the air. Lawrence jumped on Brando’s back and was holding his neck with one hand and punching the side of his head with the other. Brando reached over his shoulder and pulled Lawrence over, throwing him to the ground in front of him. Lawrence hit feet-first but his momentum pulled him over and he face-planted on the hard, trampled ground.
Now it was Lawrence who was dazed. Brando reached down and pulled him to his feet and we could see dirt and rocks embedded in his face and blood starting to flow from his nose and mouth. Brando held him up with his left hand and drew back his right as Lawrence started to squirm and punch the air. And then Brando saw it.
Lawrence was already beaten, the fight lost, even though Brando had never thrown a punch. There was plenty of fight left in Lawrence. There always would be. But he would never win. Brando saw that, and instead of punching his lights out, he pushed him away. In one motion, he flung his gloves to the ground and then held up his hands.
You win, Lawrence. I don’t want any more.
Lawrence gathered himself and faked another right to Brando.
Brando smiled, blood running from his nose over his lips.
Gary untied the gloves.
Come on, Lawrence. I’ll get you a pop.
We followed them to the garage, sat around for a little while, then spent the rest of the day riding the mini-bike. Our band never played its first note.
We saw Lawrence a few more times that year. I even boxed with him once. I was scared to death. I knew he was crazy. But no more blood was spilled. Lawrence never even came close to matching the fury he showed us that day.
Winter came and by spring we were already forming new alliances. Friendship is a fleeting thing when you’re young. We graduated and I haven’t seen those guys since.
Gary died shortly after high school. Cancer, I think.
No idea what happened to Kevin. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was a Wall Street broker. Or if he was doing life at Rikers.
I heard Brando is a NASA engineer. Now that surprises me.
As for me, I work in my hometown and live in the same neighborhood I grew up in. I stay out of trouble and off of Facebook. I know a couple more guitar chords. So, yeah, I’m still forgettable.
A few years ago I was sitting at a stoplight.
And then came Lawrence, walking down the sidewalk.
It had probably been twenty-five years since I last saw him, but he hadn’t changed a bit. Same long hair, same wobbly walk. He was wearing a football helmet.
I wondered where he was going. Why was he wearing a football helmet? I had always known that he wasn’t quite right, but now I wondered what it was that made him Lawrence. Where did he live? Did he even have a home? Did he have friends? I wondered if the kids today adopted him as we had so long ago. Or was he more alone than ever? Lots of questions, little time for answers. The light turned green and I drove away.
A few months later I was walking into the supermarket and I saw him again, standing alone by the recycle bin. This time he was wearing an Indian headdress – feathers, beads, full chief-of-the-tribe headdress. I couldn’t help but to smile at the sight. Knowing he wouldn’t recognize me, I almost walked on into the store, but something made me stop as I stepped up on the curb. Our eyes met.
Hey, Lawrence, I said, trying to convey a sense of casual warmth.
He gave me that same look he gave Kevin twenty-five years earlier. Do I know you? he asked through those squinted eyes.
I knew you a long time ago. I’m Joe.
Yeah. How are you doing?
It’s good to see you. It was hard to make conversation. I couldn’t ask him what he was doing these days. The answer was obvious.
You say you’re Joe?
Yeah, Lawrence, Joe. We used to hang out a long time ago. You doing OK?
Yeah, he said turning his head away. Just waitin’ for a ride.
Well, I guess I’ll catch you later. What else was there to say?
I paused for a second, wondering if I should do more. I turned and walked into the store. When I came back out he was gone.
I saw him a few times after that and he looked more bizarre each time. People who didn’t know him were afraid of him and went to great lengths to avoid him. Who could blame them? I couldn’t help but smile every time I saw him. I kept telling myself I would talk to him again, to try to find out more about him, maybe help him in some way. I never did.
Lawrence is dead now. The obituary didn’t say much. No mention of family or friends. Apparently no service. Cunningham Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements, is all it said. I hope he had family. I hope he had a friend. I could have been one.
But it’s over before you know it. A day is like a thousand years. And a thousand years is like a day.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
Although based on true events, this story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.