My bully Marcus Rodriguez was in sixth grade when I was in third. His beef with me was over his girlfriend, Melissa Martinez. Apparently, she had the hots for me. Perhaps that explained her giggly behavior when she was near me. I was in their classroom for a short while each day for math, taught by a white-haired antique who wore horned-rim glasses with arms connected to a little chain that hung loosely over the large hump at the base of her neck. I was not fond of Mrs. Poundstone. She slapped my knuckles with a yardstick several times for talking too much.
I didn’t quite understand flirting yet so I didn’t take Melissa’s flirtations seriously at all. Marcus, on the other hand, took it very seriously. It wasn’t long before he challenged me to a fight, something else I was vaguely familiar with because I’d seen Rocky III in the theater not long ago. So, when Marcus taunted me in front of the other students at recess, I heroically accepted his challenge, envisioning the scene where Clubber Lang insults Rocky Balboa on the crowded steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Soccer season was about to start, and Marcus and I made the same team. I was an aggressive soccer player as a kid, with an accurate left foot, and got bumped up to the U12 division, a level above my age group. My dad was the coach, but we hadn’t had practice yet. Marcus might not have been aware of those two bits of info at the time he challenged me to the fight. Maybe he would’ve reconsidered. Maybe not. Rumors quickly spread throughout first grade to sixth and when the day of battle arrived, it seemed the entire school was whispering about “the big fight.”
Marcus was waiting for me on the other side of the crosswalk. A small group of kids were already gathered around Marcus, all facing me, sneering, teasing, waiting for me to walk across the street. As I followed Marcus up the road, the group quickly swelled into a crowd. It was sunny and hot, the lawns manicured like putting greens in front of small pastel-collared cottage homes with white trim. The kids began chanting, “A fight! A fight! A Mexican and a White!”
Marcus stopped in front of a house with a square front lawn. In my mind, it immediately turned into a boxing ring. The crowd of kids circled the yard as I started dancing around, bobbing and weaving, throwing uppercuts and shuffling my feet.
Marcus stood in front of me and squared up. I kept juking and jiving. Then we started circling each other. Marcus remained flat-footed and eventually dropped his guard, laughing at me. Everybody was laughing at me. It threw me off-guard, so I stopped moving. The instant I did, his guffaw disappeared and his eyes narrowed.
After the blinding white pain erupted from my nose and my vision returned, I felt for the first time a feeling that frightened me. All the mocking chortles from getting a fist straight to the face resounded like slow-motion echoes of shame drowning me in waves. I felt something grow in my throat.
Marcus stood across from me, his head rolled back on his neck in open-mouthed laughter, eyes shut, finger pointed at me.
A sea of fingers pointed at me.
A rage that seemed to hit the Richter scale somewhere near the base of my spine began to detonate. I saw blood dripping on the front of my t-shirt, tasted its metallic saltiness on my upper lip. My cheeks were wet with tears. The fury and embarrassment exploded in a blur of punches and a throat-grinding howl. I attacked Marcus with the full intention of punching his teeth through the back of his neck.
As he started running away from me, the sea of kids parted. With tears blurring my vision, combined with the throbbing pain on my face, I was clumsy chasing after him. But then I saw Spangler riding up the street on his neon green BMX, standing on his pedals, pumping legs like pistons, his bike rapidly shifting left to right, his light brown afro pushed back above his caramel-colored forehead from the wind.
Spangler was my buddy from the neighborhood. He was in sixth grade but lived a few blocks from my folk’s courtyard apartment on Fresno’s west side, so we played together from time to time. Spangler’s dad was black and his mom was white. He was the first “mixed” kid I ever knew—as well as the first time I ever heard the term “mixed” in reference to a person. But Spangler was my guardian angel at Homan and on the soccer field—he always had my back. Our parents were friends, too. Spangler lived across the street from Aaron Champion, the biggest kid in sixth grade. Aaron didn’t play with us very much, though. I was slightly envious of his name.
Spangler had heard of “the big fight” but was late on the scene. When he got within a few feet of me, he slammed the pedal brakes and skidded his rear tire on the asphalt. The bike jerked to a stop and Spangler tripoded his legs on both sides of the frame, then threw his hands off the grips to vacate the handlebars.
“Get on!” he yelled.
I hopped on his handlebars and he started pedaling after Marcus, who had taken a hard right between the houses and was running through an alley. When we caught up to him, Marcus made another right and started running up his own street. Spangler stomped on his brakes. I dismounted and started chasing Marcus. I closed on him this time, but wasn’t fast enough to catch him before he reached his house and slammed the door in my face.
As I walked back to the street where Spangler was waiting for me, Marcus opened the door and started snickering at me. I spun around and started towards his door, only to have him slam it in my face again.
“Chicken!” Spangler hollered at him.
When we got to Spangler’s house, my nose was still runny but it had stopped bleeding. When I got home I told my mom what happened, then told Dad when he got home from work. It was simple. Mom told me to turn the other cheek and stop causing trouble. Dad told me to fight back.
The next day I rode my bike to school. When it was over, I was at the bike racks unlocking my cylindrical combination lock from my chain, doubled over my front tire with my asscrack getting some fresh air. I didn’t see Marcus behind me.
The moment I separated the lock from the chain, Marcus swooped from behind and snatched it from my hands. He took off at a dead sprint, running out the gate and off school grounds. I hurdled the bike racks and caught up to him on the other side of the street.
“Give it back!” I yelled.
Marcus slowed to a jog, “Okay, okay!” He sidestepped and turned around, hopping backward on the balls of his feet.
“Give it back!” I growled, sticking my hand out.
Marcus chuckled and stopped in his tracks. “I was just playing,” he smirked. “Here, let me put it on you.”
He extended his left arm, holding the looped chain at shoulder height. My fool ass stepped forward and slightly lowered my head, taking my eyes off his, thinking he was going to drape the chain across my shoulders.
He sent a right jab through the loop of the chain and popped me in the nose again. This one sent me on my ass—the back of my head snapped back and almost kissed the curb. Marcus dropped my chain and took off running to his house, again. I closed in on him but he still beat me to his front door. Again, the little turd opened and closed the door to taunt me. We went back and forth like this a few times before I heard his mother yell something at him in Spanish.
He didn’t bloody my nose that time, but he did do some damage to my pride. I figured Dad would think I was a sissy for sure, not to mention the whole school. When he came home from work he was positive about the situation, as always, and told me to be patient and I’d get my chance.
The next day after school, I was by the bike racks again when I felt a tap on my shoulder. As soon as I turned around –
– Marcus blasted my nose with his fist again. This time, it was like he popped a water balloon full of blood. I gave chase for about two blocks before giving up—blood was squirting down my shirt and my vision was too bleary from tears.
Dad got frustrated that evening.
“You’ve got to fight back, son!”
“But he keeps running away!” I pleaded.
“I’m going to have a talk with his dad,” he said. Then he snapped his fingers and told us he had an idea.
The next weekend, my cousin Skip came over to “babysit.” Dad bought us some boxing gloves and instructed Skip to “show Nafe a few things.”
Only Dad called me “Nafe.” It was a nickname solely reserved for his use.
After getting sugared-up with spoonfuls of Nestle Quick powder and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, we’d get hyped-up. Dad owned a portable Panasonic cassette player to document his sales presentations for Hopper Industrial Steel. Skip and I used it to record our pre-fight interviews. Just like every kid in America, we were obsessed with Rocky III, so we reenacted some scenes. I had the soundtrack on vinyl and played “Eye of the Tiger” on my Disney record player.
Skip plunged the red button on the tape recorder with his thumb and spoke into it with a nasal tone, “Good evening, everybody, this is Howard Cosell coming to you live from Baronian Square Garden. Welcome to the Fight of the Century.” He pulled the recorder from his face and we cheered, pretending to be the crowd. “In the red corner, wearing black trunks, weighing in at an impressive one hundred and five pounds, from Fresno, California, The Master of Disaster, The Prince of Pugilism, The Doctor of Doom, Skip Tuttle!”
The crowd went wild.
“And in this corner,” Skip continued, “wearing a pink skirt, weighing in at a puny sixty-five pounds, from somewhere in Texas, nobody really knows, The Weasel of Weaklings, The Wizard of Weirdos, Nathan Baronian!”
Half the crowd went wild, the other half booed.
Skip thrust the recorder towards my soup coolers, “What’s your prediction for the fight?”
Through squinted eyes, I curled my lip and snarled, “Pain.”
Then we squared up. “Don’t hit me in the face,” Skip warned. “I’m just going to show you some things.”
After attacking him with telegraphed jabs and roundhouses, trying to connect to his face or his nuts, I quickly got tired. Skip punched me to the ground with a straight left to the chest. This happened several times before I ran out of breath and my boxing gloves felt like bricks. That’s what it took for my hyper ass to calm down enough for Skip to show me how to throw a proper punch and take a defensive posture. By the time Skip went home, I was confident the next time I faced Marcus, it was going to be a fair fight—and I was going to win. Problem was the fair fight part.
The following week, soccer season officially started and we had our first practice. Spangler was on my team. So was Aaron Champion. My best friend, Ernie, made the team, too. And so did Marcus. Everyone knew about the beef between us and it showed during practice.
Youth soccer was serious business in 1982. Dad had a dry-erase clipboard and multi-colored markers, a whistle perpetually perched from his lips chirping between hollers, always decked out in Adidas t-shirts with the big plant logo and Adidas three-striped cleats to match. After a two-hour practice, he had us gather in a huddle.
“Listen, boys. To win at soccer, we have to learn to play as a team,” he told us. “And to play like a team, we need to be a team. Now I want you guys to spread out in a big circle and hang tight.”
We did as instructed and watched him jog off the field to his blue Delta 88 parked on the street. He opened the trunk and pulled out a white mesh sack with two pairs of red and white boxing gloves inside. We watched in silence as he jogged back to us.
“Marcus, Nafe, get in the middle,” he said. Then he handed each of us a pair of gloves and told us to put them on. “We can’t be a team if we pick fights with each other. Now Marcus, you’ve been picking fights with Nathan and running away. That’s not fair and your team knows it. Now we’re going to settle things fair and square.”
My gloves were already laced around my wrists and I was bouncing from one foot to the other. Spangler gave me a nod of approval.
Marcus was pale. Frozen. Eyes bloodshot. He wasn’t strapping on his gloves. A murmur rumbled amongst the boys.
“Go ahead,” Dad said to him. “Put the gloves on.”
“Yeah! Put the gloves on!” one of the boys yelled, followed by a chorus of jeers.
Marcus’ upper lip twitched and his nostrils dilated. He threw his gloves to the ground, did an about-face, and made a charge to flee.
The circle of boys had locked arms and weren’t budging.
“Let me go!” Marcus screamed.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the boys yelled.
Marcus howled, swimming his way through the boys. He eventually made his way out and we watched him running away, crying. The rest of the team bowled over in hilarity, pointing their fingers at him. Then they patted me on the back, congratulating me for “teaching him a lesson” as I unlaced my gloves.
“Alright,” Dad announced, “practice is over. See you guys at the game on Saturday.”
During the game, I saw Marcus’ dad standing on the sidelines shoulder-to-shoulder with my dad. Both had their arms crossed. They were talking to each other, but not looking at each other. They were watching the game. Things seemed tense until I saw Marcus’ dad laughing so hard, he reared back then fell forward, putting a hand on Dad’s shoulder to steady himself. Dad was laughing, too.
Marcus seemed sullen after that. The heat died down. The ambushes stopped. And that’s all I cared about.
Eight weeks later, after soccer season was over, I was standing in the lunch line in the cafeteria. I was waiting to get my foil-wrapped aluminum tray we called “hot lunch” which most likely consisted of three bland chicken nuggets, a scoop of warm applesauce, and a moist spiced muffin that was as dense as cheesecake. I say most likely because I actually never found out that day.
I was shuffling along the tile floor, making my sneakers squeak, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my ill-fitting green corduroy pants, the ones that rode above my ankles. When I felt the sweep catch the tip of my right foot, which was behind me, I realized too late that my arms were rooted inside my tight pockets, to the immediate effect that I couldn’t yank them out fast enough to break my fall. My mouth met the tile with a gaping, ear-piercing shriek.
The explosions of pain all over my face registered only after the blood ran into my eyes. I didn’t even hear myself screaming until my sense of hearing returned after a few seconds.
A teacher pushed her way through the kids circled around me, all frozen in disgust at the wailing boy bleeding all over the floor. She reached down and picked me up by the collar of my shirt, blood dripping from my nose, from my blonde hair. I was stiff as a board, hands still trapped in my pockets. As my face left the floor, I saw several teeth in the pool of blood my face was in.
After a quick trip to the nurse’s office, Mom and Dad rushed me to the ER. An oral surgeon removed a couple teeth that were jammed into my gums, one that was sticking out of my upper lip, and all the remaining fragments of the teeth I lost—the front top four and a few on the bottom. I needed spacers to prevent dental drift, but never got them and eventually my adult teeth came in, crowded and premature.
Of course Marcus was blamed. He denied it and I had no proof, beyond his pattern of behavior. Marcus pointed a finger at Ruben, his partner-in-crime who lived across the street from him. Ruben had a reputation for entering the school bathrooms and upon finding somebody at the urinal, would tap them on the shoulder. When they turned around to see who tapped, Ruben—who always wore brown cowboy boots—would kick them in the huevos. Then he’d run out of the bathroom while the other poor kid rolled around groaning on the floor in a growing puddle of piss.
“Pinche hoto!” he’d yell.
Not long afterward my folks saw it fit to send me to West McKinley Christian School to finish third grade.
Nine years later I was visiting family and old friends back home in Fresno. It was 1991, the summer before my senior year at Scarborough High in Houston, Texas. On Sundays, the entire Papagni Clan would meet at Great-Grandma Angelina’s for a big Italian supper including macaroni with Grandma’s homemade tomato sauce with meatballs and bracioles, focaccia, homegrown salad with olive oil and Great Uncle John’s homemade apple cider vinegar, sometimes calamari, always tarallis (Grandma called them “ta-das”). It was a family tradition forty years strong.
Dinner was served at 5:30 sharp and everyone was expected to be there by 5. Most everyone would show up at least an hour early to let the kids play and help Grandma set the table and put the finishing touches on the menu.
Homan was only two blocks away and occasionally a cousin or two and I wandered over to pick up a game of basketball or play a little scrimmage of soccer. On this particular day, I saw a group of fellas playing touch football. I had my younger cousin Robbie with me and, considering I was the strong safety on my high school’s varsity team, figured we’d try to hop in the game and I’d show him what a badass I was.
When we reached the sidelines, I waited for a break in play and hollered, “Got room for two more? We’ll still be divided equally.”
After a few shrugs one of the boys yelled, “Just two-hand touch!” and they waved us onto the field.
The opposing team had possession of the ball and one of their players was lined up way out on the line of scrimmage.
Perfect, I thought.
I took my position directly in front of him. Then it hit me. He was taller than I remembered, but I could never forget that face. The only difference in that ugly mug now was a scraggly strip of mustache above his dumb lips.
I could see he wasn’t much of an athlete. His neck was soft, almost creamy, and his arms showed no muscle tone or veins. He looked away from the quarterback and glanced at me.
I nodded at him.
There was no recognition in his eyes. He had no clue who I was. He immediately looked back at his QB, waiting for the snap. I grinned. I was about to ring his bell and jog his memory.
As soon as the ball snapped and Marcus twitched forward, I shoved him on his ass and started backpedaling, reading his quarterback for the play.
Marcus scowled at me, scrambled to his feet, and started sprinting in a weak attempt to get open for a pass. I was on him like white on rice and gave him another shove which almost knocked him off his feet again.
The play resulted in an incomplete pass and we jogged back to the scrimmage line. When Marcus lined up in front of me, he still wouldn’t look at me.
“Hey,” I said to him. “Remember me?”
He frowned, “Huh?”
We heard “Hike!” and I stiff-armed Marcus on his ass again.
I knew I had him. More importantly, he knew I had him. I was bigger, faster, and stronger than he was by a long shot. A sinister satisfaction crept into my cheeks as I prepared to deck him so hard he’d either fight me or cry or run away or all three, just like old times. I could taste the revenge like it was a T-bone steak. By God, Marcus was that steak.
Our teams traded possessions a few times. I scored a touchdown or two, giving Marcus an elbow as I dodged around his slow, uncoordinated ass. The next time I was playing defense, I shoulder-checked him and he landed on his back.
“Hey motherfucker!” he shouted. “It’s just touch football!”
“I didn’t hit you that hard,” I said.
He got up and brushed the dead grass from his knees and elbows and lined up for the next play. At the snap, I rushed him again and put my shoulder into his chest. He hit the ground so fast it knocked the wind out of him. When the play was dead, Marcus was still on his back, gasping for air with his hands covering his solar plexus.
The thoughts crossing my mind were reptilian. Every fiber of my being was trembling with anticipatory revenge.
I stood over him, watched him writhe, watched his breath spasmodically return, his eyes wide and pleading.
“Game’s over,” I said to him. “We gotta go eat.”
I hollered at Robbie and waved at him to follow me. I left the field and sauntered back down West Brown Avenue to Grandma Papagni’s and had the best macaroni and meatballs of my life.