Five Fights

by: Steve Passey

It’s not how many fights you’ve endured that defines you, it’s how many you’ve won. One person’s journey to rise up against insurmountable odds, and claim that elusive victory…

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence – M. Ghandi

Many a man will consider himself worthless unless he has won at least one fight in his life. A real fight, it is said, has to be both physical and moral. There is no equivocating one with the other, no false equivalencies or relativity, the experience has to be both. There are numbers you are measured by, and then the things those numbers represent. I know a man who lost every fight he ever got in save one, and because of that one he is held in higher esteem than those who never have fought. That man’s name was Andre Petrov.

Andre Petrov was a quiet, skinny kid with a lazy eye. He lived with his mother who worked long hours as a chambermaid in a roadside motel. Andre and his mother came from a place where I think they still lived under a sod roof and told time by the sun and moon. In middle school kids gave Andre a hard time about his eye, but by high school the mostly let him be. I told him that he should wear a patch, that it would be cool. He shook me off.

“They tried that on me when I was little. It doesn’t work. I need that eye to see,” he would tell me. ‘The patch gives me two days of headaches for every one day that I wear it.”

Andre and I went to school with a bully named Garrett James-May who played football, but by the time he first encountered Andre he’d been dismissed from the team for repeated honor-code violations. Any man, I have always believed, with a hyphenated surname can only rise to the level of golfer or an asshole, and the terms are not mutually exclusive. Garrett still lifted weights with the team despite his dismissal, a routine in which every Monday was set aside exclusively for bench pressing and every Friday for biceps-and-baby-oil. Garrett had a refined instinct for finding the solitary, the excluded, and the weak, and he would exploit that vulnerability. “Time to cull the herd boys,” he’d say, walking the halls with his sycophants. He’d find someone, anyone, and then he’d strike. His specialty was giving a kid a walking elbow to the back of the head. He’d just stride by and violently lean into his victim. Garrett’s brutish elbow in the back of the head was bad enough, but then the recipient’s forehead would bounce off their locker and make enough noise so that everyone would look. “You just got culled!” his followers would shout, high-fiving each other while posing for the cameras. Someone always filmed the assault with their phone, and the scene would be replayed on cell phones throughout the school and continuously posted on social media pages for all to see.. Everyone knew who got beat, and who did the beating. “Garrett’s Greatest Hits” Garrett called it.

In the last month of our junior year Garrett finally came upon Andre. He jacked him up with the walking elbow and Andre hit the locker, then hit the floor, then, surprisingly, bounced up and shoved Garrett. Garrett proceeded to beat the shit out of him right then and there, in front of three cell phones, four cheerleaders, and fifteen kids who were either glad it wasn’t them or who just didn’t care. No one cares about you when you are weak, and the weak care about no one but themselves. The skirmish ended with Andre curled up in the fetal position covering his head with his hands.

Garrett sought out Andre in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven after school that same day and beat him harder. Andre tried desperately to defend himself, hopeless with fear and humiliation, but to no avail. The beating would continue day in and day out. On a Monday night, after Garrett had finished working out, he found Andre in the 7-Eleven parking lot once again. Andre tried to walk away but Garrett elbowed him from a dead run in the back of the head and for a brief moment, Andre was no longer with us. Instead, we imagined as he lay on the pavement unconscious, Andre was back in the Old Republic where he came from under a sod roof, or perhaps excitedly walking into the plane that had brought him and his mother to town. A small group of gawkers filmed Andre lying there on the pavement, his hands moving like a man sweeping snow off of lake ice to look at fish swimming underneath, his lips moving without sound, without sense. What was he saying? Perhaps he was telling himself to stay down. Or perhaps he thought he already stood back up. Maybe it was rhymes, chants, and incantations, nursery rhymes from better times in a language he thought he’d forgotten when he was six that he was speaking.

When Andre recovered he walked home alone, not bleeding, but hurt. So hurt he couldn’t walk normally. He stumbled down the street zig-zagging from side to side and house to house like a blind man wading through snowdrifts. When he finally made it home he sat at his mother’s table with his head in his hands and cried. His mother told him that she understood and felt bad for him and that her heart broke for him too, but that if he “wanted to be a serious guy he’d have to become a serious guy.”

After the school year’s final bell had rang out its call, Garrett beat him up once again. Andre stood his own ground whilst Garrett assailed him with blow after violent blow, until Garret and his boys took off when a teacher came out to investigate the commotion. Andre retreated to his mother’s home, but this time he did not cry.

Andre landed a job that summer working for a contractor. He framed houses and shingled roofs day in and day out under a glaring summer sun. After work he’d do one-hundred push-ups and one-hundred sit-ups. He’d run to the elementary school and back. He’d sit in his room listening to Dio and watching Oldboy — the original Korean version — with the sound off and the subtitles on. The next morning he’d be up on the roofs by seven and he’d do it all over again. The sun and labor and physical exertion remade Andre, day by day, week by week, and month by month, all the way into September.

Andre showed up for our senior year with a deep tan and a hardened, chiseled physique. He’d become solid working up on the roofs, lean and mean. A lot of guys quit that job at noon on their first day. They realized quickly they weren’t prepared to break their backs pulling up pallets of shingles. They weren’t prepared for the blazing sun beating on their backs while laying endless rows of hot, dusty shingles, sweat stinging their eyes, their backs and knees aching, regardless of what the job paid. Andre didn’t mind though. He spent the summer swinging a hammer, and now he was built like a knife.

On the fourth day of our senior year a cheerleader named Shayla Sway, Garrett hyphenated-surname’s on-again off-again girlfriend, offered three hundred dollars to anyone who would “beat the shit out of that cheating asshole” for her. Andre said he’d do it.

“Aren’t you that kid that Garrett beat up about twenty times last year?” Shayla asked.

Andre nodded.

Shayla looked at Andre and saw in his good eye—and maybe the lazy one too—the roofing, the push ups, sit-ups, chin-ups and all the miles of running. Andre looked at Shayla and saw a one-hundred-and-thirty dollar cut and color, black with a blue rinse. He saw a rich girl’s hard eyes that were used to getting what they wanted. He saw a new “crossover” sport utility vehicle her parents had bought her. He also saw three hundred dollars cash in her hand, right then and there.

Andre made sure he was the last into shop class on that fateful day. On the way in, he dropped a lit match into a trashcan just outside of the classroom. It took about thirty seconds for Mr. Jackson, the shop teacher — a lean and spare man who had been a Marine in Iraq in Operation Desert Storm — to smell the paper cups, loose-leaf sheets, and tissues burning. Mr. Jackson went out into the hall quickly and purposely, striding like a man leveraging momentum into a run, to investigate. The students in the class followed Jackson to the door jockeying for position—all of them except Andre. Andre, instead, sought out a framing hammer, composed of twenty-eight ounces of forged steel with a milled face and a fiberglass handle. Charging at Garrett in the hallway, he swung the hammer like a man fighting off a carjacker in a phone booth, driving it into one of Garrett’s knees. Garrett hit the ground face first and rolled over on his back clutching his knee. Andre then swung the hammer with a high and pure arc, like the sun on the path of the ecliptic, smashing it into Garrett’s other knee. Garrett shrieked a high and thin sound, solitary and pure in its own way. Andre threw the hammer aside and stepped over Garrett’s hand-bound knees, sat on his chest, and began driving short hard punches into Garrett’s tear-stained face. Where Garrett had once elbowed Andre in the back of the head—dangerously close to killing him—the back of Garrett’s own head bounced off the tile of the shop floor as his eyes fluttered, until Mr. Jackson came in and with one hand on Andre’s collar and the other on his belt dragged him off.

Andre was expelled following the event, and never went back to high school. A suspended sentence for aggravated assault followed that. Garrett wouldn’t play football ever again.

There was a great deal of heated exchanges that lay in the wake of Garrett’s trouncing and threats were made. Garrett and his boys were going to get even. They were talking well beyond fists, elbows and knees. They were talking knives. I’d heard a rumor that one day while Garrett was in his backyard with a couple of his boys, Andre hopped the fence. He took a framing hammer out of his coat and told them that it was the first thing he’d bought with the money Shayla had paid him. It was brand new, never been used. It was time to break it in he told them. He wrapped his coat around his other arm as a sort of shield and told them “Come on, let’s do this. One at a time or all at once, I don’t care.” Garrett and his boys ran into the house and locked it up and immediately called Garrett’s parents. His parents were at Costco and left their shopping cart inside full of bulk boxes of muffins and chicken thighs and ran out to drive home to him, but by the time they arrived, Andre was long gone.

The police were called to Andre’s home, but his mother vouched for him. She said he’d been in his room the whole afternoon, doing his pushups and sit-ups, listening to his music, and watching movies. She further explained that Garrett and his friends had a history with her son, and that they were now just using the police to harass her boy. The police walked away and never came back again.

The year of our tenth high school reunion I went to see Andre. He was doing well. After he’d been expelled he’d earned his GED and then gone to trade school. He had kept working for the same contractor he had started with in the summer of his junior year until eventually he opened his own shop. He did roofing and framing, and as it turned out, he was swinging the hammer at the right time. A construction boom followed and it was good to him. I told him about our tenth reunion and I asked him to come. He reminded me that he hadn’t actually graduated there. I told him it didn’t matter and that he should come anyway—just for old time’s sake. He told me not to live in my yearbook. I laughed and asked him to at least donate a door prize or something for the silent auction if he couldn’t see his way to be there.

“Like what?” Andre asked.

“How about a framing hammer?” I said.

He laughed and gave me the one off of his tool belt.

“One slightly used framing hammer for one lucky grad,” I said.

The reunion came and went. I learned that Shayla and Garrett had reconciled after high school. Shayla became pregnant, the two of them were married, and they ultimately divorced. She had a kid with another guy not long after but didn’t marry him. Shayla wound up out in the Northwest with a realtor’s license and a web page with an abundance of listings and many positive affirmations about abundance. Garrett was a an adjuster at an auto insurance company. He wore short-sleeved white collared shirts with a tie. He golfed and had never remarried. A friend practicing law told me matter-of-factly that he knew Garrett had been named in at least one “bad-faith” lawsuit. He’d been reprimanded and then, after a modest refractory period, promoted. I think both Garrett and Andre found their niche. Neither came to the reunion.

I wound up putting Andre’s framing hammer in the silent auction. The reunion committee decided to gift the proceeds towards a new weight-room for the football team. I wound up being the only bidder. I bought it for twenty dollars. Go Tiger Football.

Ten years. Twenty dollars. Five fights. These are numbers and there are things they represent..

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