Irving Rosen was a sniveling, wiry haired whiner, unpopular with the other high school students, and you really could not blame them. He invited that kind of irritation. He was annoying, no matter what, and he was not half as smart as the smug know-it-all air which he projected. Even so, it was not right that he should have his brains bashed in at a boxing match on account of his personality.
He was getting his brains bashed in on a summer afternoon on the square lawn of Gary Jackson's house in the suburbs, and Gary Jackson was doing the damage. Jackson had a short blonde haircut and a face marked by whiskery moles and acne, but a lean, muscular body and a devastating reach. For the last ten years—since Gary's sixth birthday—any visitor to the house within striking range was challenged to an immediate fist fight between the oak trees, and Jackson always hurled a pair of well-worn boxing gloves at his prey to punctuate his point. Bouts broke out on the spot, and the young pugilist threw himself into them fearlessly.
He was pummeling Rosen with precision and determination. Stripped to the waist, he bobbed and weaved, throwing sharp jabs to the side of the face, and cruel body blows, which left the weaker boy breathless. Jackson had announced before the fight that he was going to beat up a sub-human. Rosen had made some stupid retort, to the groans of some of the spectators, and they were jeering him now as Jackson pounded away at his cringing victim. The audience was made up of kids from the same class, who showed up with backpacks and bicycles after school on the odd afternoon when there were fights at the Jackson house. There were more than a dozen of them today, sitting cross-legged on the grass, although only one or two ever got up the nerve to confront Jackson. He was the oldest boy among them, sixteen in two months, and they all knew he could not be beaten.
Rosen was foolish to trade blows with him. It was too late for him to back out now, and Jackson was going to send him home bloody and bruised. He would have some explaining to do.
The contest was completely illicit, of course; it was not as if it took place under the auspices of some gym or supervision. There was no referee or timekeeper. There was no boxing ring, just the informal natural boundaries in the yard, and more than one contestant ended up in flowerbeds. It was a rowdy afternoon's entertainment for most of the spectators, but what always made it even sweeter was a glimpse of Jackson's younger sister, Vanessa. The ice blue eyes that made her brother cold made her enchanting. For some of the boys, like Jonathan Steinman, a hint of Vanessa was all the reason to attend.
Steinman was a good-looking boy, with dark features, and a streak of independence, which made him seem older. He had grown up in another country, and there were colorful rumors about his family.
Steinman did not give a hoot for Jackson, one way or the other—the sixteen-year-old prided himself on being a swaggering bully, and he was the biggest boy there because he had been kept back twice. Steinman liked Rosen even less. Rosen was always the type to sidle up to him and remind him of the background that they had in common. It was not easy to forget yourself in that neighborhood and Steinman felt absolutely no affinity for Rosen. Even so, he did not like the gleeful way that Jackson was hurting him. Somebody had to stand up to Jackson, and he knew that he was going to have to be the one.
"I'm fighting next!" he announced, which brought the current exchange, and the massacre of Rosen to an abrupt end.
There was a murmur of shock through the group. Any time anyone was reckless enough to volunteer to spar with Jackson, there was a reaction. Most of the time, they all hung around throwing out dares and taunts before someone eventually accepted the challenge—suffering under a few opening punches before quitting—and, it was usually after much cajoling. Sometimes, the contestant was met with heckles, but Steinman was well respected. He had not shown much interest in the matches before, being as his interest was always directed towards Jackson's more interesting sister. No one remotely believed that Steinman would be able to triumph over Jackson, but the general consensus was that he would be able to acquit himself well on the way to certain defeat.
Rosen went staggering to one end of the yard and vomited into a rosebush. He was pretty banged up and everyone remarked how disgusting it was. Some of the kids pelted him with divots. After Rosen stopped gagging, it was quiet, like the stillness before a thunder burst, with just the sound of the birds. It was a sunny day, but the trees cast dappled shade across the garden. The lightest breath of a breeze rustled the leaves.
A sandy-haired classmate named Mikey Morris was going to act as Steinman's second, and started to help him on with his gloves while Jackson hopped from one foot to the other and pounded his fists together to keep up his energy at the opposite end of the lawn.
"You saw what he did to Rosen… You think you can beat him?"
"Not a chance." Steinman eyed his sturdy opponent. "I don't know how to box. He breathes it. He's going to kill me."
Morris stopped lacing up the gloves. "So, what's the matter with you? Why are you doing this?"
"I don't care if he beats me. He's going to beat me. I don't care if he hurts me, I don't give a crap."
"But you know you can't win?"
"I just want to have the opportunity to hurt him. I want to hurt him back a little."
Morris eyed him as if he had lost his mind but went back to lacing up the gloves. He had to wet the tip of the lace with saliva to thread it through the hole because there was no aglet on the end. Somebody called ding-ding and then the two boys went at each other right away. This was not as lopsided a competition as the Jackson versus Rosen undercard. Steinman was a little savvier than he let on, moving his feet, keeping his guard up, and trying to get his jab going.
He was completely outmatched. Jackson kept up an aggressive attack, and there was no way for Steinman to get a punch through. With a flurry of quick jabs, Jackson set up an opening and unleashed his long right. Steinman was knocked off balance, and Jackson knew to follow up with some well-practiced combinations. Dropping his guard, Steinman threw out a wild right swing, which caught Jackson open-mouthed on the chin and stopped the offense. Mikey Morris called out time, bringing an early end to the first round.
There was an electrified hush between the rounds. The boys all stared at the contestants without comment.
Steinman bent over with his gloved hands resting on his knees to catch his breath. Jackson rinsed out his mouth in a cold stream from the garden hose and spat out the water.
"Come on," Jackson bellowed, "Round two."
Mikey Morris wiped Steinman off with a striped beach towel. "Okay."
Ding-ding, somebody called, and the two adversaries went at each other again.
There were a few snaky jabs on each side, then they fell back and circled one another. Jackson darted about, with ostentatious footwork, and suddenly feinted left, and struck Steinman on the jaw with a right hook.
They fought without mouth guards, so Steinman began to bleed from the mouth. He spat out a wad of crimson dribble. Jackson followed up with a strike on the right side of the head, and then another right hook, this time just beneath the eye. It was a deliberate, well-targeted hit. Jackson was going to make sure that Steinman went home with a shiner.
"You'll remember me when you look in the mirror," taunted Jackson.
Steinman was defiant. "Hit me again."
Jackson came in with the right hook again, this time to the body. Steinman staggered, and everyone gasped. You could see it knocked the wind out of him.
Mikey Morris called time for the end of the second round and came in to give Steinman some support.
"I'm okay," Steinman said.
"Let's throw in the towel."
"I want one more round." He spat pinkish blood out of his mouth. His teeth had cut on the inside of his lip, and it was starting to swell.
"You should see yourself."
"I just want to get one in on him."
It was the third and final round. Jackson strode right up to Steinman, his guard down, ready to finish him off. But before they even got going, Steinman hit Jackson in the face with a good solid right that landed with a crack on the bully's nose.
"Ah, shoot!" exclaimed Jackson, waving him off with a gloved hand, "You broke my nose, you jerk."
Blood was pouring down his face, and he had to lean forwards to avoid dripping onto his chest. One at a time, he tucked his gloves into his armpits, and pulled them off, and let them fall onto the ground.
Steinman stepped back. Nobody knew what Jackson would do now. Mikey Morris looked worried and made the sign of the cross over his chest.
"You jerk," said Jackson, "I'm going to murder you for this." But he did nothing, except pinch the bridge of his nose, and throw his head back. "That's it. I won in the early rounds. The fight is over."
"Ding-ding," called Mikey Morris, throwing a towel over Steinman and pulling him away.
A few of the boys came up to Steinman to congratulate him.
"What are you shaking his hand for?" Jackson demanded, "I beat him."
Rosen acted like it was his personal victory. "Then why'd you stop the fight?"
"It was a lucky punch," Jackson argued, "And, I wouldn't say anything, if I was you, Rosen, you already got whipped."
Rosen clapped Steinman on the back. "He can say what he likes, but you licked him."
"No, Rosen," Steinman said through swollen lips, "He beat the crap out of me. He's right. I had one lucky punch, that's all. And don't you ever touch me again, you little squirt." Steinman gave Rosen a firm push with his palm against his chest, and Rosen fell back onto the lawn. Fearing another blow or a kick, he hugged his knees against his ribcage like a baby while Steinman loomed over him.
Inside the house, behind lace curtains, Jackson's beautiful sister, Vanessa, was watching through one of the windows. She had such ice-blue eyes it could send a shiver down your spine.
Notes from the Author
The literary ancestor of Irving Rosen is Robert Cohn in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but I like to think that there is a little bit of Lord of the Flies in here too. Bullies grow up to be bullies unless they are stopped in their tracks, but these school kids may be destined to follow a path of violence and conflict.