I was sitting in my room reading a comic book when Markie walked in. "Whatcha doin?" he asked. "What's it look like?" I replied. Markie was unfazed by my sarcasm. "You wanna ride bikes?" he asked. "We could go over to Bumby's bakery or maybe to Midas Muffler to get a soda. Or we could go to K-Mart. I gotta get some BBs."
I wasn’t sure if he really needed them, or if he was just rubbing it in my face that he was allowed to have a BB gun and I wasn’t. I thought about it. A man has to know his limitations after all, and at the time, my limitations were that I could go to Bumby's and Midas because they were both on the same side of Central Avenue, but I wasn't allowed to cross it on my bike.
Yes, I was ten years old and barely allowed to leave my yard. At least that's what it seemed like to me at the time. K-Mart was definitely out because that meant I had to cross Route 155, which my mother somehow believed would result in my instant death.
"OK, I'll go to Midas with you." I said. "I want to go up to Record Town and get that Stealer's Wheel 45 anyway." Stuck in the Middle with You had been stuck in the middle of my head ever since I heard it on Casey Kasem the previous Saturday, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor. They were going to be the next Beatles; I was sure of it.
We jumped on our bikes and took our normal route to Midas, which involved riding through the woods past the big hill and following a skinny trail through a dusty, tumbleweed strewn field that eventually popped out onto the sidewalk of Central Ave. There were easier ways to get there, but none that involved riding through wooded trails at top speed while deer flies tried to snack on your head. I know that doesn't sound like fun, but it was.
I'm not sure what the guys working on cars in the muffler shop thought of all the kids that continuously showed up to raid their soda machine, but we didn't give it a thought. Knowledge of the machine had been passed from kid to kid, and we had only just found out about it the summer before. The soda was cheap and ice cold, and they had Orange Crush. What was there to think about? When we first left my house, neither one of us had been especially thirsty, but by the time we coasted up outside Midas, we were sweating through our shirts and an ice-cold soda was, at that moment, the thing we wanted most in the world.
We leaned our bikes up against the side of the building and walked around front to the machine. "Whatcha gettin'?" Markie asked. "Same thing I always get," I replied. "Orange Crush." I dropped my quarter in, opened the skinny glass door, and looked for the Orange Crush logo on the vertical row of bottle caps. It wasn't there. I scanned the bottle tops again, and realized that in its place was Nehi Orange. Not as good, in my professional opinion, but I wasn't going to pass it up.* It was still better than that Dr. Pepper crap Markie liked. I grabbed the neck of the bottle and yanked it out hard. I popped the cap off with the opener in the front of the machine, and heard it fall onto the pile of other dead bottle caps somewhere deep inside. I took a long, sweet swig as Markie repeated the process and pulled out his bottle of foulness that tasted like a mixture of rotting cherries and root beer. I didn't understand Dr Pepper then, and I don't understand it now.
The only drag about buying sodas at Midas was that the bottles were refillable, so we had to drink them there, and then put the empties in the wooden rack or the owner got pissed at us. I think he might have had to pay for the missing bottles or something. They were twice as thick as a normal bottle and they stayed cold forever. We walked around the building and sat down in the sun next to our bikes, our backs resting up against the wall, and drank our hard-earned sodas. We looked at each other and grinned like we had just accomplished the impossible. We had ridden our bikes to Midas Muffler and purchased Soda of the Gods. It was a good day so far.
"Bruuuuuaarp!" I said.
"Blarrrruuuuuhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaapp!" replied Markie.
"Beat that," he said.
I couldn’t, and we both knew it. When we finished drinking our sodas, we dutifully placed our empties in their slots in one of the wooden crates, making sure that the guys in the garage saw us do it. It was like we were placing an offering at the mouth of the volcano to appease Pele. We wanted to make sure we were welcomed next time — if not with open arms, exactly, then at least with a surly grunt and a nod of the head.
We hopped back on our bikes and took the "back way" to the record store. It probably added another ten minutes to our ride, but it was deemed safer by my mother because it meant we didn’t have to travel directly down the shoulder of Route 155, thereby saving us from becoming I-told-you-so road kill. Ironically, it also meant that we had to cut through some kind of shit hole trucking company storage yard where they parked unhooked semi trailers that were stacked so close they were almost touching each other.
There was no pavement, just a hard-packed clay with a covering of powdery sand. It wasn't so bad if the weather was calm, but even the slightest breeze meant that this dust was lifted into the air and accelerated to an insane velocity by the wind tunnel effect created between the trailers, then flung directly into your eyes and nose as you rode into it. You had zero side-to-side visibility when riding between these trailers, and there was so much truck traffic in and out of the main entrance that, windy or not, the entire place existed in the yellow haze of a permanent dust cloud. Most of the time when you cut through the lot, you had to be extremely careful not to get run over by an 18-wheeler. And you kept your mouth closed, or you'd be crunching sand between your teeth for hours afterward.
When we finally made it out of the main gate, it was only a short ride around the corner to the record store. Markie didn’t have much interest in music, so I went in by myself and picked up my single. While I was in there, I picked up the new Grand Funk single, too; a new song I liked called We're an American Band. It seemed like a good idea because the singles were 99 cents each or 2 for $1.59. I had a stack of 45's that would have made you drool.
When I came out of the store, Markie was sitting astride his bike, counting his money. "Whatcha doin'?" I asked.
"Seeing if I have enough for BBs," he replied. "You wanna go, or are you gonna wait here?"
He knew about The Limitation too, and was, in his own way, casually inviting me to ignore it without coming right out and saying so. It had to be my decision. I looked across the street at K-mart. There was hardly any traffic on the road, and I had just avoided death by 18-wheeler, so I was feeling pretty invincible. It was only two lanes wide for god's sake. We'd be across and back before we saw car one. "Yeah, I'll go," I said nonchalantly, in direct opposition to my mother's rule #234 for not getting killed.
So we crossed, and believe it or not, nothing bad happened.
We rode the shoulder for while until we reached K-mart, locked our bikes outside the store and went in. We messed around in the sporting goods department for a while, and then Markie picked up his BBs. When we came out of the store, there was a kid checking out Markie's bike. That damned Schwinn Orange Krate wasn't exactly inconspicuous. The kid was big, and older than us, and had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Against our better judgement, we walked over to our bikes, all the while pretending he wasn't there.
"Nice Bike," he said. We ignored him and unlocked our bikes. We stood them up and got on. Just when we thought we were home free, he put his hand on Markie's handle bars, stopping him. "Hey kid," he said. "Didn't you hear me? I said nice bike. Whattaya say I take it for a spin."
It wasn't really a question. Markie immediately (and probably correctly) decided that if he agreed, it would be the last time he ever saw his Orange Krate. "I don't think so," he replied. "We gotta go." I must have looked like I was going to make a run for it, because the kid turned his attention to me.
"Where do you think you're goin, faggot?" he asked me. "You don't leave until I tell you to leave."
I stopped where I was.
"What's in the bag?" he asked, tossing the cigarette away. "Give it."
I reluctantly handed him the bag with the two 45's in it and he opened it up, momentarily letting go of Markie's handlebars. He took the records out of the bag and made a show of sliding them out of the slip covers and flipping them across the parking lot like frisbees. "Hey!" I said. "I just bought those!" He just crumpled up the slip covers and laughed.
It was that moment that Markie made a break for it. His bike was fast, and the kid had been distracted by the obvious pleasure he took in trashing my new records.
"ASSHOLLLLLE!" Markie yelled over his shoulder as he gathered speed. The kid spun away from me and ran after Markie, intent on not letting him get away after such a serious transgression. I jumped on my bike and pedaled in the other direction, then swung wide, picked up some speed, turned around and headed back toward the highway, behind both of them and about 50 feet to the right.
The kid suddenly gave up on Markie, who was easily out-distancing him, and turned back toward me, trying to intercept me as I passed. He grabbed at my bike and missed by inches, and we were home free. Wild laughter involuntarily erupted from my lips as I gained speed. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was pedaling with everything I had, heading toward Route 155. Markie was about a hundred yards in front of me, and he zipped across the street without stopping, perfectly timing a break in the traffic. When I got to the shoulder of the road, I wasn't so lucky. I looked both ways and it was nothing but cars whizzing by, one faster than the next. I looked behind me and the kid was catching up fast. Markie was on the other side, watching everything unfold. "COME ON!" he yelled. "Hurry up! He's coming!"
"I CAN'T!" I yelled back, frantically watching the cars speed by. "There's too much tr----"
A hand grabbed the collar of my shirt and the next thing I knew I was lying on my back tangled up in my bike.
"Get up," the kid said. "Get up and get your fuckin' ass over here."
I stood up, my knees shaking. I thought about running, but wasn't sure I could even walk, let alone out-run this kid who was twice my size. And besides, all I could think about was my bike. I knew that if I ran away, I'd never see it again, and my father would kill me. "What do you want?" I asked him. My voice didn't even sound like my own. "What are you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna make you pay," he said. "And the price is one punch in the face. Now get over here and take it."
I walked slowly toward him. When I was standing within arms reach, he jabbed at my face with his right fist. Just by reflex, I twitched my head back and his fist just barely touched my nose. This infuriated him, because he assumed I did it on purpose. "STAND STILL, ASSHOLE!" he yelled. I froze, trying not to cry, but not entirely succeeding.
He threw another punch and this time it connected. My upper lip and the side of my nose went instantly numb, and I saw stars in my right eye. I don't even remember hitting the ground, but I did, too stunned to even cry. As I tried to get up, he pushed me down again with his foot. Then he just laughed, and said "That's what you get." and then walked away, raising his middle finger to Markie as he did so.
I sat up, but couldn't do much more. A few minutes later, Markie rode back across the street and helped me get on my bike. "You OK?" he asked. "I dunno," I replied, touching my mouth gingerly. "How bad is it?"
"Your lip looks like a balloon," he said. "He popped you good."
"My mother is gonna KILL me," I blubbered through lips that increasingly felt like over-inflated inner tubes. "I wasn't supposed to cross 155. She's gonna kill me when she finds out. And I think my tooth is loose." I suddenly felt like crying again.
"So what she don't know won't hurt her," Markie said. "It ain't that bad. Maybe she won't notice." He looked at my face and reconsidered. "Yeah, she's definitely gonna notice. But we'll just tell her this happened in the parkin' lot of the record store."
That sounded like a solid plan, so we went with it. We rode home slowly, and when we got back to our houses, we parted ways.
"Tthee ya," I lisped. It was really starting to pound now that the numbness was wearing off.
"I snuck in the house and immediately went to the bathroom to assess the damage. The inside of my lip was the color of a ripe plum, but the outside of the lip wasn't split, so that was good. It was a little ripped up inside from where the tooth had jammed through it, but that was the only bleeding that I saw and even that had almost stopped. The tooth itself was definitely a little loose, but it didn't appear to be in any danger of falling out, so I figured it would probably be OK. I took my first punch, I thought. And it wasn't that bad. I cheered up a little.
I hid in my room until dinner time, but the second I walked into the kitchen my mother took one look at my misshapen face and flipped out. "Oh my god! What happened?" she asked, grabbing my face and turning it this way and that and tilting it up toward the light. "Who did this to you?"
"Mom, ith no big deal," I said. "I got in a fight." That was a slight exaggeration of the truth, but a guy has his pride. "I don't know who it wath. Justht thum jerk outthide the record thtore."
She eventually calmed down and got me an icepack and some aspirin and I told her the whole story. She immediately called Markie's mom and she got the story from him, and for the most part Markie backed me up. I think he told her that I "got punched in the face" which wasn't nearly as impressive as "got in a fight" but I couldn't blame the guy -- we hadn't rehearsed that bit. I made sure he knew how it (ahem) really happened before we went to school the next day though. I had an impressive shiner and a fat lip, and I didn't want to waste it.
Of course, I had to repeat the story to my father when he got home, and I don't think I was allowed to go to the record store again until I could drive there. Shortly thereafter, I sent away for this and I started lifting weights that consisted of two paint cans tied on the ends of a broom handle. After waiting a few weeks to see if I was serious, my father bought real weights and a heavy bag -- which I beat the shit out of on a fairly regular basis for about seven years in preparation for the rematch that never happened.
So that's the story of my first fight, if you can call it that. I'm not proud of it, but that's the way it happened. I stood there and got punched, and it pisses me off to this day.
I never saw that kid again, but I still looked for him in crowds. Even now, I picture him just as he looked then -- black t-shirt, jeans, greasy blond hair and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his sneering mouth -- even though on an intellectual level I know he's probably ten years older than me and has a pot belly, an ex-wife, a loser kid and no hair except for what grows out of his ears.
It's funny the memories that stick with you over the years. The world is full of assholes, and that was my first experience with one, so it stands to reason that it would leave a mark. Or maybe it's because I didn't go ape-shit on him and fight back and I'm ashamed of ten-year-old me.
Maybe the kid had a shitty father who beat on him, or maybe he had some sort of emotional problems and right now he's jacked up to the gills with Prozac. He could be dead, or sweeping the floor at a local high school, or working for NASA. Maybe he became a priest, or won the lottery. Who knows. Chances are, he's still an asshole, but I forgive him anyway. He was just a kid. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't sometimes think about punching him in his mail-order dentures.
After all, a guy has his pride.
*Every once in a while I'll get a bottle of orange soda in a glass bottle if I can find it. In fact, this post was inspired by a can of orange crush I drank not too long ago while standing outside a QuickLube. Orange soda in the summer time brings back those days more clearly that I would have believed possible. I can still picture the smell of that muffler shop -- Sun-baked asphalt, car exhaust, hot welded metal, and an oily mist in the air that you thought smelled really good at first, but after a while started to make you feel a little sick. I loved all of it, and still do.