Fiction · 11/07/2012

The Fights


On a stained mattress, sixteen year old Charlie Kemmick sits in his 9’ x 9’ cell. He has not showered and the sweat from last night’s fight is still tacky on his skin. Unable to sleep, he had replayed the fight over and over in his head, each punch, the way his opponent, Dick Moore, had thrown his gloves down for a second, like he wanted to see what this kid had in him. He hears the rattling of keys somewhere down the short hallway. A drunk calls out the word woman, over and over, or maybe it is women, all of them. The first of the morning light is trickling in through a window on the other side of the bars. Charlie studies his hands against the grey backdrop of the cement floor. They aren’t that big. They hurt. One or two knuckles on his right might be broken, even though he only hit Moore a few times. Only a few times and the guy didn’t get up, just laid there on the ring floor, one arm tucked under his body, the other with its gloved fist pointing accusingly at Charlie’s corner. Moore had swung, what, one or two times is all? The spectators, not that there were that many, started booing while Charlie stood in his corner, Moore’s manager out with the smelling salts, trying to raise his man.

Charley is scared. He wonders if he has somehow been granted some measure of power beyond his control. Maybe he wanted it too bad.



My father and I played this game when I was little. He would lie on his back on his bed and, using only his muscular, wiry legs, he would fend off my every attempt to scale his body and lay a hand on his head. My father’s sparsely furnished home had no board games, toys, or other entertaining distractions. Other possible avenues of fun included tossing cards into a hat or watching the grapes dry into dusty raisins on the windowsill. Thankfully, our invented game was enormous amounts of seemingly endless amusement. My father has been a carpenter most of his working life and his legs were strong, more than up for the task of repelling my awkward, giggling advances.

In the midst of one of these bouts, my father received a phone call. We paused so he could talk. But I was still giddy with excitement, charged up with childish adrenaline; I wasn’t ready to quit playing. I had already emptied a deck of cards into an old trucker cap; the grapes, upon inspection, continued to shrivel in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window. So with no other recourse for play, I sucker punched my father with a headbutt to his lean gut. In turn, he instinctively smacked me half way across the room.



Middle of class in high school. I lean in to crack a joke to this tough guy next to me and end up getting a little too close to his bad day. He puts his big hands around my throat for a second or two, then he takes one of those hands back, curls it into a fist and puts it into my face. I go ahead and lie down on the floor. This is funny, I think. Say something to the rest of the startled class, to the terrified teacher, that will clearly show this can be a joke. But, also, man, my face hurts. The guy throws his hands up, says he’s cool and calmly leaves the room. I manage a soft, muttered, Wow.

He disappears from class for five or six days, coming back in the final weeks of the school year. On the last day of school, he drops a note on my desk that says I owe him some lost days, like he really missed out on the wealth of uncomfortable knowledge that is high school health class. But we’re seniors, so I don’t know exactly when he expects me to get them to him.



When my son is thirty-seven years old, he and his wife and their son, my grandson, will be eating at a Denny’s. They will be eating there because they are on a long road trip, going to a new, uncertain mid-West home, and it is the only non-fast-food place at the highway pull off. Their kid loves it, the tackiness of the place. They have deprived him, despite my admonitions, of America’s middle-class delights.

A drunk guy at the booth in front of them will turn around. He will be wearing a trucker’s cap and taped together glasses. He will have a patchy beard and a space in his bottom teeth that looks too wide for a gap, too narrow for a tooth. He will tell my grandson to quit kicking the booth. Okay, son, settle down, his father will say, but this will not be enough. The man will have all kinds of things to say, about my son’s parenting, about the notion of children in general. Okay, okay, yep, my son will say, already collecting their coats, ready to move onto the next truck stop town. But then the man will put a hand, complete with a purpled dead thumbnail, over the booth onto my daughter-in-law’s shoulder. My son will pick it up and remove it.

In turn, the man will take a big, drunken swing and before his hand can even reach him, my son will hit him back, on the side of the head, his fist sliding along the mesh of the man’s hat onto the back of his skull. Then, when my son turns away, he will see his kid, blank faced, his arms straight as a board at his side. He will have terrified his child, introduced a new violent uncertainty into their family. But then my grandson will nod, just one up and down of his little square chin, as if he is letting his father know it is okay, on occasion, to let someone have it.


JP Kemmick is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana. He took a week of karate classes in the fifth grade and that’s about as close as he ever got to following in his great, great uncle’s footsteps.