My Last Fist Fight
I was checking a book out of the LSU library when I heard my name and turned. He strolled past, waving, and went on outside into the warm, late spring, Sunday afternoon. My body numbed rather than heated the way it had a couple of months earlier. I hadn’t thought of him much in weeks, and now the useful rage I’d built was gone. He acted as if he hadn’t roughed up my fiancée Laura’s roommate so badly she’d put a restraining order on him, acted as if he hadn’t then followed Laura to and from her classes, always staying at a distance and giving no answer when she yelled at him to stop. Instead, he acted as if we could still be double dating, drinking and despising both the CIA for giving his country to the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini for placing it under another kind of oppression. It was 1981.
The librarian handed me my book, and I gripped it and my notebook of lecture and research notes as I strode after him. I’d seen him go left through the glass doors, and I saw him again when I reached the corner of the building. He was about halfway down the covered walk, still ambling. “Mohammed!” I called. He stopped and turned, said, “How are you, Tim?”
This was not how it was supposed to go. I remembered the fear on both Laura’s and her roommate’s faces and in their voices the night the roommate broke up with him, and he shook her and yelled at her, threatened to do much worse. I remembered the hot poison in me when Laura later told me he was stalking her—Laura, a tough woman who didn’t spook easily. Didn’t Mohammed know that I knew all of what he’d done? Did he think that women meant so little to me that I would let it go? Had I given him that impression? All this was in my mind right then.
The distance between us was closing, and my blood was gaining heat, the reason unimportant so long as I had it. About ten feet away I said, “You better stay away from Laura.” He said, “If I don’t, what you do?” his practiced English falling away, his smile changing to something I’d seen before at a Halloween party when he was dressed as Superman and drunk and had told me that people his father knew had been tortured by the Shah’s secret police, electric shocks administered and bottles ground into them. I had shared his outrage and expressed it, but at some point his voice and eyes slipped beyond anger to unhinged, spit flying from his mouth, fists pumping, brown eyes throwing fire. I’d felt his rage familiar in my own muscles, but that night in Laura’s room, while he was in the roommate’s bed, I told her that he’d rattled me. She told me he’d made a pass at her, had said, “I’d like to have you.” I mostly wrote it off to the booze, but I couldn’t shake the image of his reddening face close to mine saying, “I would kill those fuckers and the fucking Americans who hold their strings.” His complexion was going that color now.
I’d put myself in a jam. The minutes were also slowing to give me time to think, Hamlet-like, a thing I didn’t want to have happen before fights. Should I threaten him directly, reinvoke the police or just attack? It was time to choose from clichéd responses, but every cliché would set in motion something different and unpredictable. I decided on belligerence without specific threat. “You’ll see what happens, motherfucker,” I said.
“Show me now,” he said, and took a couple of steps toward me.
I still didn’t feel the anger I wanted and needed to fight. I thought I could even avoid the fight. Then I wondered if he might really do something to Laura despite his having laid off, wondered if my calling him out now would make him more prone to go after Laura, wondered what my older brother the cop would say if he knew I wimped out. Then my mind was on whether I should take off my glasses and how blind that would make me, and I had the crazy thought that maybe he wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses even if that guy hit him first. This was counterproductive to fighting.
Mohammed was big, about six-three and probably forty pounds heavier than I was. It was clear his rage was quickly building. I glanced around and saw there was only a male-female couple in sight, and they seemed unlikely to intercede as diplomats. I dropped my notebook and book and stepped toward him, rising onto my toes, my fists up. He charged, his fingers out like claws. I tried to deflect his arms as I took a step back and to the side, but he ripped my shirt all the way down, buttons flying and clicking on the sidewalk, my chest burning. I gave him an uppercut to his stomach, which collapsed like a feather pillow, the most devastating punch I’d ever thrown. He went down hard to the concrete on his hands and knees, gasping. I hadn’t felt the power of throwing such a punch since I was a kid, and for a moment I swelled up before the feeling sputtered and drooped. I flexed my fingers. Good, I thought, it’s over.
I had never been a very good fighter, never enjoyed it like a lot of people around me had, even though I’d been in lots of fights when I was a kid, a couple in high school, and one, sort of, in college. I had won some ridiculous, lopsided fights, but against opponents who knew what they were doing, I usually got beaten, or at best, injured in a draw. A black guy had flattened my nose in a race fight my senior year in high school, and a dopehead kid had raised a huge knot on my head with his square-toed boot in a ten-minute fight in eighth grade. I had supposed Mohammed would be this kind of opponent.
So, not long after Mohammed started following Laura, I went to see my brother. Robert was a Baton Rouge police officer when the force wore Confederate-like uniforms and almost anything went. He and I had grown up close, but we’d drifted apart after he came back from Vietnam, my strident, antiestablishment judgement and his bullyish bragging colliding. He’d been a timid kid, overshadowed by our oldest brother, then had volunteered for the army and come back from the war as one of the quickest, strongest people I’d ever known. One night when I was in eleventh grade, I rode him for an hour about quitting smoking until finally I snatched his cigarettes from his pocket, plucked a couple out and broke them. When he tried to grab the pack, I took a swing at him, but found myself face down on the kitchen floor, my arm behind my back, his knee in my spine, before I even knew he’d moved. On the way to his efficiency apartment, I resented that he was so much more powerful than I was and anticipated he’d throw my pacifist leanings back at me.
“Not a whole lot more to do legally except try to get another restraining order that covers Laura,” he said after I’d told him what was going on, without mentioning Mohammed’s name or nationality. “Even that won’t do much good if he really wants to do something to her or he’s crazy.” He took a drag from his Marlboro, squinting at me. “You could catch him outside her class and fuck him up.”
I glanced at the corner of his small place. “I don’t know, man. I don’t want to get expelled my last semester.” I looked at him, sure I was shrinking to the coward he knew I was, sure he knew the real reason for my waffling was I just didn’t want to fight. He slowly nodded and screwed his mouth sideways with what I was certain was disdain. I sipped my Schlitz. “It’d be hard to catch him anyway,” I said. “He doesn’t come around all the time, and Laura and I have really different schedules.”
“You know where he lives?”
“I picked him up for a party once.”
“You could catch him there.”
“If he still lives there. He might have moved to keep from being deported because of the restraining order.”
Robert sat forward in his easy chair. “Deported?”
“Iranian! A fucking raghead?”
“Don’t say that.”
He smushed out his cigarette. “Don’t say it? He’s after your girlfriend.”
I tapped my beer can and wished I hadn’t come. More than that, I wished I had Robert’s will and strength and lack of ambivalence to do what needed to be done. “Shit,” I said.
Robert breathed out heavily through his nose. “You want me to talk to him?” he asked.
“No!” I waved my hand. “I need to take care of it.”
“You think you can?”
“I guess I can.”
“You guess. You better know. Is he big?”
He sat back and sipped his beer. I could tell he was concerned, but I could also tell where he was about to go and he was enjoying it. He smirked. “You know my motto,” he said. “Maximum Violence Immediately.”
“That’s fucked up,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, leaning forward again, the smirk gone, and pointed. “If you think this dude’s dangerous, you better get dangerous. If you’re gonna hit first, you make it count.” He stood. “Stand up.”
“Stand up.” He crushed out his cigarette. I scowled and stood. “Eyes, throat and knees,” he said, pointing to each on me in turn. He demonstrated with a just-short poke to my eyeballs, a slow-motion chop to my larynx and a simulated karate kick to my leg, his eyes lighting up. “Cause he’s big, I’d take out his knee, then punch him in the throat.”
“I ain’t sure I can do that.”
He frowned and licked his lips. “He’s stalking your fucking girlfriend, Tim. You better get some balls.”
I’d never had those kinds of balls, was only partly sure I wanted them, but my brother’s eyes burned into me that I needed to be a man. I drained my beer and went to the kitchen to get another, furious at Robert in a way I wished I could sustain for Mohammed, yet believing he was right. I opened the fridge.
“Get me one,” he called.
For a month after I talked to Robert, Mohammed had disappeared, and I wondered if the ordeal would be over if I hadn’t challenged him. Then I thought how it was possible he’d be acting differently if he’d seen Laura instead of me. Whatever the case, Mohammed was now struggling to his feet. “Just stay away from her,” I said, and in my own voice I heard the little anger I’d worked up already waning. He glared at me, his face distorted equally with pain and fury.
He shifted his feet under him and rose. “I kill you, motherfucker,” he said, his accent heavy. He charged again, arms flailing, and I easily punched him in the gut again, harder than the first, sending him crumpling to the cement once more. “Stay down,” I said, the fleeting sensation of power not arriving at all this time.
The couple stood at a distance, holding hands, the woman’s mouth covered by her other hand. I glanced at my open shirt and my pale scratched chest, then at Mohammed writhing and gasping. Embarrassment welled up in me, both at my torn shirt and at fighting on my college campus—me, a senior, a Dean’s-lister. It sounds ludicrous, but I was ashamed to be fighting at the school I’d wanted to attend all my life. I’d seen too much violence at my junior high and high schools, and I’d idealized LSU, held to that ideal, even though I knew by now that it could be as base as any other place. I wanted to explain to the couple that I was only protecting my girlfriend, although I already doubted whether that was my main motive. Instead I held my shirt closed and waited.
Mohammed was muttering what sounded like Iranian curses as he scaffolded himself up. His eyes strained with pressure, tiny veins reaching out from their corners, a fat vein bisecting his forehead. He kept saying he was going to kill me, and I fully believed that he would if given the chance. He got to his feet a third time, now clearly hurting and struggling for breath, gathered himself and came at me more slowly, lumbering, but also more determined somehow. I considered punching him in the face, but I knew how much that could hurt him and my fist and how unlikely it would be to stop him as crazy as he was getting. Plus, if a face punch didn’t put him down and he managed to get a hold of me, I might be in real trouble. I lifted off my toes and stepped into a full swing, giving him another in the belly. Down he went the hardest yet, his body meeting the sidewalk with a sound like a dropped slab of meat. Nausea sluiced through me.
I actually liked Mohammed. Maybe part of it was feeling superior in my liberalism because I went places with an Iranian at the worst time in America to be friends with an Iranian, but I did think he was good-natured and smart in a nerdy, engineering-student kind of way. And even though his humor was awkward, he did have a sense of humor and laughed at my jokes. Plus, just as I did, he liked America for its ideals and freedom and hated it for its imperialist meddling. Even his anger and violence toward his girlfriend hadn’t totally put me off him because I could also fly into rages. In the moments that I’d hated him, I believed it was actually part of myself that I hated.
He gripped his gut with one hand while propped on threes. He was crying and trying horribly to catch his breath as he drooled. Ragged threats literally spat from him. I glanced at the couple, who looked aghast at me. I wanted them to say something to stop this, to maybe even call the cops, but they did nothing. And I wanted that as well—nothing—since I could already imagine the campus newspaper reporting on the fight, citing me as the racist who beat the Iranian or just as the trash who fought outside the library. It was possible they’d simply take the last thing and mock me: Library Pugilist Booked!
I didn’t grow up on mean streets so much as mean-spirited streets in working-class north Baton Rouge. As kids, talking things out was for girls. Fists settled disputes, and even when they didn’t, both parties had at least made an attempt to prove their manhood. Still, those were kid fights, mostly wrestling with a few wild punches landed and no serious physical or social consequences. We fought, recovered and remained friends.
In seventh grade, however, I found that the world of junior high fighting could be more about humiliation and shame than simply winning. An eighth grader named Pogue began to call me names in front of my friends. I’d been quarterback of the football team, so I didn’t understand why this somewhat nerdy-seeming, glasses-wearing kid had picked me out, unless it was that I was also an honor student who sometimes wore matching bell-bottom and puffy-sleeved outfits that my mother had bought me. The name-calling went on for a month or so until my friends joined in with “chicken” and “pussy.” I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t sleep, dreaded seeing him and them.
Finally, one day after school, I took my bike to the elementary school ground where I knew Pogue showed up early for softball practice, knew because my sister-in-law’s cousin, Skye Kirbye—strangely enough Pogue’s best friend—had told me. Every time Pogue had insulted me, I’d felt reduced, unable to muster enough anger to act, but as I saw him sitting alone on the roots of a huge oak tree and drinking from a pint carton, aggression filled me. I coasted up on my bicycle and hopped off, noticing that he barely glanced at me. He cradled the carton, chocolate milk I now saw, in both hands and didn’t rise as I strode toward him. “I’m sick of you calling me names,” I said, and without hesitation popped him in the side of the head with a roundhouse right. The punch stung my fist and sent Pogue down on his side where he curled.
I’d never landed a punch like that, never would again until Mohammed, and its strong medicine powered a viciousness in me. I straddled him and punched his back and shoulders over and over as he covered his head. He didn’t resist at all and I kept on, rage spilling out of me like a purge until I hyperventilated, stopped and stood. “Never call me another name,” I said. Then I noticed the carton of chocolate milk had miraculously fallen upright. I grabbed it and drenched him with it. My bike wheels barely touched the ground as I rode home. That night I felt a little guilt, but I pushed it away and looked forward to no more harassment and to bragging to my friends. I slept great.
At school the next morning, Skye Kirbye walked up without Pogue. Skye was a wiry, little guy, skinnier than I was and very short, but he had an expression that made him seem larger. “Pogue ain’t coming to school,” he said. “He ain’t hurt, he just ain’t coming.” He paused and wrinkled his nose, then continued. “He deserved to get his ass beat, but you shouldn’t have poured the chocolate milk on him.”
That seems funny now, but at that moment my own shame made me small, my cruelty took away the gloat of victory. It was a shame that would accompany every act of violence in my life and showed me that humiliation could be just as much a part of winning a fight as losing one.
I knew this as I waited for Mohammed to get up. He was still on his hands and knees, but I knew that he would stand again and again, unless I made him unable to. My brother’s instructions came to me, and I saw that Mohammed’s throat and belly were both open to full kicks that could crush his windpipe or rupture an organ. I imagined myself doing it, imagined him rising from the ground with the force of my kick, then collapsing, and I knew right then that I couldn’t do it. My legs and arms went away. Fear saturated me.
“Fuck you,” he wheezed, crying, and lifted himself to one knee.
“Stay the fuck down,” I said, holding my shirt closed again.
He made it to his feet and braced with his hands on his knees, his voice clearly insane with resolve. He straightened his back and lunged forward. I turned and ran ten yards away.
“You chicken shit,” he said, and bent over to catch his breath.
“It’s over,” I said. “Just leave Laura alone.”
“I kill you,” he said. Then he spotted my notebook, went over and snagged it.
“Put that down,” I said, almost wanting to laugh at the absurdity, since I knew my voice had no authority. I’d won the fight but knew I wasn’t willful or brutal enough to win the war. He walked away in the direction he’d been heading before, still cursing me, my notebook in hand. “I need that,” I said, feeling ridiculous. I picked up my book and followed him, the couple moving onto the grass at my advance, me still holding my shirt. I tried to reason with him all the way to his car, then I stopped at a distance, glad nobody else was around. I had to have that notebook for a major test and paper that week. He took out his keys, opened his trunk and dropped the notebook in. Then he took out a tire iron.
“You’re crazy,” I said.
He raised the iron and came at me. I thought for a second about holding up my book as a shield, blocking the tire iron and taking it from him. Mohammed was such a bad fighter that I actually believed I could do that. Then I thought what would have to happen next. I jogged away.
Mohammed followed me at a slow pace back toward the library. As I passed the couple just outside the entrance I said, “Thanks!” and they shrank from me. The library was large enough to hide from Mohammed forever, but I was almost more worried about the humiliation of telling my brother I’d run from a man I’d knocked down and let up three times than I was of the tire iron. I thought of calling Laura, had no idea what I’d say, then thought how worried she’d be if I called. I thought of calling campus police and imagined the headline again, thought how I might be expelled my last semester, and knew I was going to have to call Robert. I gazed toward the front door, exhaled and went to the phone booth. I dialed his number and told him the guy had come after me with a tire iron without telling him any other details.
“Can you see him?” he asked, his voice amped.
“No. He’s probably waiting for me outside.”
“You got a stick or something?”
“I’m in the library.”
“Huh. Stay out of sight. I’m coming.”
I walked around the corner into the lobby and saw nothing. I already regretted calling Robert because I knew how he would look at me when I told him the whole story. And maybe his look would be right, I thought, until once more I pictured my foot swinging into Mohammed’s throat, pictured his head recoiling, then him gasping.
I took a seat and scowled at the people who glanced at my folded-over shirt, a perverse shame settling into me. Not simply shame that I’d fought Mohammed when I probably didn’t need to, but also older shame that I’d stopped short of what it took to damage him. I’d gone to a high school where there were race riots, grown up where the word “black” was a rarity compared to all the other words. Until my senior year, when some black kids went to a racist white kid’s house and beat up his grandmother, I never participated in any of the race fights, my lack of participation seen as weakness by people I saw as protective of our white-flight neighborhood and school. I’d always had plenty of rage, but not at black people or foreigners, and even when I could draw upon generalized anger, I couldn’t sustain it enough to transform it into action. As insane as it sounds, when I’d first gotten mad at Mohammed, I thought I’d finally be able to draw something useful and clarifying out of my bigoted upbringing and background. And I had drawn something for a while, constructing Mohammed as the stereotypical sexist predator, the uncivilized Muslim, a sand nigger. He would be easy to hate, not quite human, except that I couldn’t hold the image. I understood almost immediately that constructing him that way was a trip backwards to what I’d tried to escape by coming to college, and I ended up loathing myself even more than I did for my lack of resolve. I had dropped the attempt, forever out of step with the culture that had raised me, but now, sitting in the lobby, my failure to be even once the kind of fighter that my culture valued made me dread Robert’s arrival.
He rushed in ten minutes after I’d called, wearing jeans, his black cop boots, and an untucked button-down shirt. He marched toward me, coiled for action, his pupils wound tight in the bright blue of his eyes. “Where is he?” he said. “I didn’t see him outside.” He wiped the cottony spittle at the corners of his mouth.
“He didn’t come in.”
“Too bad,” he said, and lifted his shirt to expose his .38. “I see he got his claws on you.”
I looked at the burgundy rake marks starting high on my chest, closed my shirt more, then flung it open. “I knocked him down three times and he kept getting back up. He grabbed my notebook and ran to his car.”
Robert tilted his head. “He grabbed your notebook?”
“Why didn’t you knock him down again?”
“I just couldn’t, all right.”
His tongue moved around in his mouth like a mole. “Why didn’t you keep him down?”
“I couldn’t do that either. I couldn’t hurt him anymore, the piece of shit.” I looked away for a second, then back at him.
He studied me, his eyes squinting, his lips protruding. I braced for whatever was coming, then he nodded, becoming again the brother who’d taken care of me as a kid, the brother who’d taught me how to catch a football, shown me The Three Stooges, taken me garbage can knocking the night of my ninth-grade Honor’s Club induction, given me my first drink of Strawberry Hill. He wiped the spittle with thumb and forefinger and rubbed it on his jeans. “What you want to do?” he asked.
“Get the notebook.”
“You remember how to get to his place?”
“You want me to come?”
“Well, if he acts up, I might have to pop him.” The corner of his mouth perked up. “And it ain’t good to pop somebody in their own place, especially out of uniform, soooo…” He grinned. “I’m gonna have to call headquarters to let ’em know I’m going.”
I shook my head, imagining the grief his friends were going to give me. “Great,” I said. He laughed.
On the way to Mohammed’s I smoked one of Robert’s cigarettes and told him the entire story. I was surprised he didn’t tell me how I should have chopped Mohammed in the neck or dislocated his knee or gouged his eyes out. Instead, he set his jaw and glanced at me once in a while, trying hard, it seemed, to take it all in. I often felt like a helpless boy around him, especially when he told about taking people down on the job or demonstrated on me in painful-but-not-damaging ways how to incapacitate by pushing pressure points and bending fingers and applying choke holds. But when I finished my story and ground the butt out in the ashtray, I felt like someone trying to solve a problem in my own way.
“How nuts you think he is?” he asked when we were close to the apartment complex, which was on Staring Lane but which everyone called “Starring.”
“He went ape shit after I threatened him and got worse every time I hit him. He seemed to calm down after he got the tire iron.”
“Sort of. I think his stomach hurt too bad to come very far.”
“You think he has a gun?”
“I doubt it.” I cocked an eyebrow. “He’s an engineering student.” Our oldest brother had been an engineering student.
“I oughta beat his ass just for that,” Robert said. We laughed.
The apartment complex was shabby and mildewed. I’d only been there once to pick Mohammed up for the Halloween party. He’d been a pretty poor Superman, lacking definition and muscles, but he’d laughed when his girlfriend teased him, even though he seemed to want us to take the costume seriously. I thought about their relationship, how he’d never seemed to really like his girlfriend that much and how he complimented her in ways that seemed scripted when he said he wanted to marry her. I’d always thought it was the language barrier, and maybe it was, but only there in the car did another possibility dawn on me. He’d talked about not wanting to go home after graduation—this being his senior year too—talked about how things could go badly for him in the Ayatollah’s country because other Iranian students knew he’d been dating an American woman and had adopted American ways. Marriage would have been his way to stay, and when his girlfriend had cut him loose he’d lost it. And even though it was possible many of his actions had been disingenuous, I felt sympathy for him, wondered if he’d sensed whatever it was that would make me have sympathy for a man who would hurt one woman and terrify another just to get what he wanted. I wished for a moment that I had kicked him in the throat but knew that was about me and not him.
Robert parked his car directly in front of Mohammed’s apartment, then set his pistol on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel so it could be seen through the windshield. “Go get it,” he said, “but don’t stand right in front of the door in case he does have a weapon.”
I took up a spot just to the side of the frame, knocked on the thin door, normally at first, then banged on it when he didn’t answer. “Mohammed, I need my notebook.”
“Fuck you,” he said from the other side.
“Open the door. My brother the cop is here, and you don’t want him to get out.”
There was a long wait, then I heard the chain slowly slide and the door unlock. He cracked the door, his eye going toward Robert’s car. I remembered his fury when he told stories about the Shah’s police. He glared at me. “You queer,” he said.
“Just give me my notebook, dude.”
He made to shut the door, but I jammed it with my foot. He bared his teeth at me, then said, “Wait,” and retreated into his apartment. I eased the door open a bit more. Through the opening I could see his kitchen table covered in fast-food wrappers and beer cans. I recalled how neat his apartment had been the time I picked him up, remembered how he’d told me he barely scraped by but was paranoid of having an Iranian roommate because of their judging him and wary of getting an American roommate because of so much anti-Iranian sentiment. But what I saw wasn’t the result of lack of money. What I saw was the apartment of a guy who’d been dumped. I thought of how crazy I’d be if Laura dumped me. And later I would be crazy, would toss a kitchen table across a room and into a wall in the midst of an argument not long before we divorced.
“Here,” he said, and stuck it through the door. I took it, keeping my foot wedged in as I checked to see if he’d ripped the pages out. “I should have torn it,” he said.
“Just shut up,” I said.
The notes I had written seemed like scribbles from another life. I closed the notebook and looked at his face, his skin blotched crimson, his eyes red and puffy. I almost apologized, then I felt like punching him in the mouth for what he’d done to Laura and the shame he’d helped me bring on myself. Then I just felt small. I moved my foot, and he muttered something and shut the door. I never saw him again.
I slapped the notebook against the side of my leg and tried to think of what I was going to say to Laura, wondered whether she would think it had been foolish to fight him after he’d seemed to go away. I thought she might appreciate my acting like such a man, but I wasn’t sure. The scratches on my chest had begun to burn, and I wanted to put something on them to make sure they didn’t get infected, then realized that I was thinking they were more likely to become infected from Mohammed than from a white person and blew out of my nose, disgusted at myself.
When I sat back in the car, the pistol lay on the seat between my brother and me. I dropped the notebook on it.
“You did fine,” Robert said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go.”