2006 – Kyle Torke – Courage

Fiction selection from the 2006 issue

Courage
by Kyle Torke

All my heroes were courageous—eliminating entire tribes with a six-shooter and a fine horse, running erect across the beaches of Normandy and not losing a single comrade, the enemy bullets mere puffs of dust in the sand, quietly waiting in the foxhole in the jungle at night to zing the Vietnamese soldiers foolish enough to encroach. All my heroes fought on the side of right, stood nobly and faced death that never came for them.

I participated in my first gang fight when I was twenty-five-years-old. I play water polo, a brutal sport, but I’m not an essentially violent person. My dog Nikita once badly injured a chick, and I knew the animal would die and ending its misery would be humane. I stood over the chick for five minutes, stone raised, before I summoned the courage to kill it. I’ve had my share of dust-ups, mostly with friends, like the time Pat Theimer and I swatted each other at the bus stop until I knocked him on the ground, pinned his arms above his head, and felt ridiculous. I didn’t want to hit him, didn’t want to be in the fight at all. I let him up, and we rode to school on opposites ends of the bus. We began losing our friendship after our tussle in the dirt, though we never fully stopped contacting each other until he dropped out of college to pursue the life of an activist/anarchist. Last I heard, he was on the lam hiding from the FBI, running from friend’s house to squatter’s room to cheap hotel only two steps ahead of The Man.

In graduate school as a young man, my teammates on the water polo team became my best friends. We knocked each other in the mouth during practice and then tried to cheat each other at cards in the evenings.

The best trips were to warm places like Florida and Arizona, and a tournament we especially enjoyed happened each spring at the University of new Mexico.

After playing four games during the day (winning two, losing one by a point, and discovering ourselves at the short end of a big whooping by a California team), we spent the night dancing and drinking at a sanctioned party. The host team rented a nightclub, and all the players, their wives or girlfriends, and a select group of riff-raff and eccentric characters (which included the game officials) crammed the mosh pit or lined up at the beer tables to gulp plastic cups full of foam. The freedom of being fully dressed, feeling the thump thump of the music instead of the thump thump of other men’s bodies, suited the evening, and I hung against the wall perfectly content to watch the dancers and the lights and the funny way men yell at each other in a noisy place even when they have nothing to say.

New Mexico is pleasant in the winter, and the night air revived us when we finally decided to return to the hotel. Six of us headed toward the van. I was the designated driver. We parked in a lot across from the club. Dried winter weeds grew in the pavement’s cracks, and a light wind wrestled the trees. I wouldn’t have been surprised had a tumbleweed blown across our path.

Just as I unlocked the driver’s side door, a group of five men of Mexican-American heritage and distinctive Chicano gang attire stepped out from behind the van.

“Eh, amigos! What are you doing in our town, eh?” The tallest man spoke with his hands, too, moving them as if he were smoothing a bed sheet. He stood about five-foot four. His anemic soul patch made his face look young.

I opened the door and stood on the seat, hanging outside, so I could look over the top of the van: all the action was going to occur on the other side. I could have walked around to join my friends, but I thought, as the designated driver, I should also be the designated voyeur.

“Buzz off,” Mickey said. Mickey, who stood six-feet six inches, had too much to drink, but he suddenly seemed focused. He joined our team for the tournament, but usually played with a group from Wyoming. Mickey was our ace hole-setter, the center of our team, and with his goatee and brown, shoulder length hair, he looked like Jesus would have looked had Jesus been a weight-lifting water polo player.

Mario, one of our wing players, sidled in front of Mickey to prevent him from advancing on the group of agitators. Mario grew up in the Bronx as a street fighter and, like Mickey, was a powerful young man, but he looked small in front of Mickey.

“Now, we don’t want any trouble, all right?” Mario spoke with his hands palm out in a show of peace. Mario probably wanted a piece of the action, but the previous year had five fraternity brothers beat him to a pulp the night before a big game, and he was too bruised and sore to contribute; we lost fifteen to three. He never forgave himself for losing, and the girl at the center of the fracas never returned his call.

I watched the four other members of the gang—would I see a knife? a gun? I felt a tickling need to walk around to the front of the van, but I didn’t move. I scanned the parking lot—was someone else hiding, other members of the gang?

“Fuck you,” someone in the back of the group said.

“Yeah, fuck you!” another one said. They raised their hands and made some kind of sign, a triangle with their fingers that separate and flew into the darkness like geese.

Mario turned toward the gang and pressed his back against Mickey. “Come on, guys. You don’t want this.”

Gravity or some other force of nature, perhaps centrifugal maleness, pulled the two groups closer. A blue Lincoln on the other side of the van funneled them toward contact. The two tribes cohered, like bunches of grapes. Mario tried to hold the four men behind him from advancing.

Why a group of short boys would want to tangle with five drunk water polo players escapes me. Perhaps they had something to prove, perhaps picking this fight was a gang initiation of some sort—we were the grizzly bear they had to wrestle.

“Let’s cool it,” Mario said, turning around put his hands on Mickey’s chest.

“Fuck them,” said Mickey.

“Fuck you,” said everyone in the gang.

At that moment, the leader of the gang extended himself to his full height on tip-toes and took a swing at Mickey, but he managed only to scuff the top of Mario’s head. Mario turned around and landed a punch squarely in the man’s face. Mickey took the next in line. In two short minutes, every member of the gang was on his back attempting to deflect the blows raining from above.

After I lost sight of everybody, I jumped down to run around the front of the van to try and stop the carnage, but the battle ended abruptly when two campus cops emerged from a golf cart, a pathetic blue light swirling on top, and showered the roiling mess of fists with pepper spray.

I arrived too late for the fight and the pepper spray, and because I was the only member of our squadron who wasn’t crying, I drove us to the hotel.

If I hadn’t been the driver and on the wrong side of the van, I could have participated in the fight, I tell myself, but I took the responsibility of caring for the others, of watching their backs for weapons or trickery. I could have proven something about my aggressiveness, my ability to hunt and kill and enslave.

My friends didn’t make fun of me, and no one said anything to me other than thanks for driving. But I knew I lost the opportunity to be marked with a badge of courage. The others had blood on their knuckles and red, popped veins in their eyes.

I used to walk a mile and half to Pecos Junior High, and I had the great fortune of taking a short cut through an unofficial dumping ground for washing machines, fenders, and mattresses. The dump nestled in a bomb-sized, cottonwood lined crater. My friends and I spent hours sifting through discards hoping to find a stray Playboy we could take back to our mattress and tin roof forts. We built complex warrens of bunkers and military offices that, at night, older boys dismantled. During the daylight, we were emperors of junk and commanders of cap-gun armies who shot from behind sinks and tractor tires. Our bravery echoed in every whoop and “got you!”

During the fall of my eighth-grade year, Kingston Construction began erecting a treatment facility for alcoholics near our bunkers. Suddenly, neat piles of corrugated venting appeared on our battlefield, and it didn’t take long before our camps sported an upgraded shine. I don’t think our poaching resulted directly in the collapse of the project, but the workers abandoned the building once they framed and roofed it. Rumors began circulating that two girls had been raped at the construction site, and litigation forced the owner in to bankruptcy.

We allowed the building to sit quietly under snow for the winter, but one afternoon in the spring, walking home with my two best friends, we discovered someone had removed the plywood covering one of the windows.

“Let’s go in,” Pat said. Pat already had a fuzzy beard and, if he hadn’t been more interested in Tanya than his friends, would have been our leader.

“Yeah, let’s go in,” I said.

“I don’t know,” Bobby said. He cupped his chin in his palm. I learned much later that the strangeness of Bobby’s parents contributed a great deal to his own strangeness. “My mom said it’s dangerous. You could step on a nail and get lockjaw.” He seemed to be pondering the flagpole that leaned against the building, strapped at an angle and without a flag, to the roof. Five years later, his mother would commit suicide when his father’s cross dressing became public with an arrest and a brief spot on the local news.

“Come on,” Pat said. He stepped through the window.

Bobby followed Pat, and I jumped in last. The two-by-fours of the windowsill felt smooth, and the inside of the structure was surprisingly dustless.

We stood in the light of the window for a moment and looked as deep as we could into the columns of support beams and spindles of electrical wire. Seams of light illuminated the rooms like flashes of lightning.

We took a few steps into the darkness. I felt like the tail of a military march, the guy who gets pulled down from behind, his throat slit, and nobody notices until the troop halts for lunch. I could hear Pat’s footsteps, but he became only an outline in the darkness. Bobby’s hard-soled shoes scuffed on the floor and echoed. We had taken fifteen steps into the room when a gleam of light caught my attention. In the rafters, twelve feet above our heads, I made out the rubber bottom of a sneaker and then the gleam of light, again, from a belt. In the brief moment I saw the figures, I knew three or four rapists had hidden themselves in the support beams and waited only for us to get farther in the darkness before dropping behind us and blocking our escape.

My summer-time military experience taught me to prepare to fight, to order my comrades into a circle so we could cover each other’s back. I looked for cover. I even reached for my imaginary side arm. I wanted to defend my friends.

Instead, I turned and sprinted toward the window. I didn’t speak a word as I dove through the opening. As soon as I hit the dirt, I turned around and shouted into the room, “Look out! Someone’s in the rafters!” But my warning came too late. The four high school boys dropped like paratroopers to the plywood floor and began yelling obscenities and threats. The encircled the two boys and taunted them with their hands.

A moment later, a red faced Pat emerged from the window and then Bobby, crying. We walked home silently, leaving behind in the darkness the four boys, laughing, to reload their trap.

Neither Pat nor Bobby chastised me. We continued to play war games in the dump, though Pat started to spend more time in Tanya’s basement than in the fields of glory. I wanted to explain that I was going to protect them, that my first impulse was warn them and get them out, but I knew I had run. I tried to tell Bobby one cool morning, with fall coming hard down the slopes of the Rockies. Sitting with our backs against a piece of plywood on which someone had scrawled with red spray paint “you’re an asshole,” I said, “You remember last summer? When we went into the old building?” I pointed and chuckled. Bobby considered. “No,” he said, and I believe he didn’t.

As a senior in high school, I thought, finally, my body had caught up to my personal sense of manliness. My friends sophomore year called me “banana boats” because, for the first two weeks of classes, I wore a pair of bright yellow sneakers on my size 11 feet. I weighed only ninety-seven pounds. With a long stride, I must have looked like a pontoon boat missing one key support link. But I discovered swimming and the weight room, and by senior year, I tipped the scales at lean one-hundred and fifty-five pounds. Strong enough to swim in the State Championship Meet at the Air Force Academy, set a couple school records, and protect myself.

My two best friends, Tom and Tom, swam with me, and Tom Donovan and I had a lot in common physically, though the muscle seemed to cling to me a little better. Donovan was good with his hands and created some functional pieces in Shop class, including the Shower Disperser, which attached to the nozzle of the locker room showers and softened the painful jet the school provided. He was also good with cars and had rebuilt and appointed a Ford truck that became his joy and, through its masculine power, our ticket to the macho life.

We dropped Tom Soper at his house after a night of crawling the bowling alley and mall parking lots and were heading back to my place, stereo loud, our letter jackets glistening with gold bars, feeling rather full of ourselves. We liked Tom, but his mother swaddled him with a strange sense of the world that excluded most of the pleasure Tom and I desired—women, fights—a physical and rough life. We had no more experience than Tom, but we knew a mother’s coddling, even by association, would prevent us from entering the world televisions and magazines promised us, a lewd and loud world of chronic pleasure and opportunities to demonstrate our own superiority.

The skyline bubbled with the light blues of a late sunset. We would graduate in two months, and the landscape sprouted signs of change just as we felt, in our muscles and our confidence, that we would change soon, too. The air was cold now, but warmth was coming. Buds sprouted on the crabapple trees like cocoons.

Stopped at a light, the truck growled slightly, and Tom turned to smile at me. He was handsome, if still boyish. We were both late bloomers.

“We lifting tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday, dope.”

“Oh, yeah!” He grinned and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.

I laughed, too. The world was ours to pluck, and all the fruit would be sweet.

“Hey, get a load of this,” Tom said, pointing with his finger out his window.

Two men in a rusted pickup pulled alongside us at the light. Both wore ragged jean vests and sported long beards flecked with gray hair and oil.

“Fresh out of the mountains,” I said, tapping a drum roll on the dash.

“Out of the mountains!” Tom said. He revved his engine, and the Ford lifted a little as it strained against the brakes. He sat taller and his seat.

The driver of the other truck took one hand off the wheel and revved his engine. The truck backfired, and a plume of smoke erupted from the tailpipe. Both men turned to stare at us, but we couldn’t tell through the deep furrows and beards, natty as nests, if they were feeling playful.

We looked out the front window. When the light turned green, Tom popped the clutch and left the rusted pickup behind in a peel of gravel. Three blocks later, we had to stop at a red light, and the Chevy pulled even with us. The passenger had rolled down his window, and he signaled Tom to open his. His finger, large as a sausage, seemed disconnected from the body.

“You want to play?” he said, pulling a gun out of his lap and flashing it for Tom to see. “You want to play?”

Without much hesitation, Tom leaned back in his seat. “Hold on!” he said, checking the intersection and then pulling into traffic against the light. I hadn’t understood what had happened, but Tom’s panic provided some insight. His cool, deliberate breaking of traffic laws, the immediacy of how his decision turned to action, startled and impressed me.

“He had a gun.”

“A what?”

“The motherfucker had a gun. We’ll out run him.”

The truck followed and pulled directly behind us. Tom, a good driver but not prone to speeding, running stop signs, or tempting disaster in any way, tried to shake our pursuers. He slowed and then accelerator as a light turned: they followed. He took sudden turns around corners: they followed. After a ten minute chase, Tom turned to me.

“I’m going to the mall. They won’t do anything in a crowded place.”

The dash lights reflected in his sweat. I had tried to be quiet, letting Tom make the decisions.

He pumped the gas and pulled hard at the wheel, entering the mall from the exit drive. The truck, too slow, simply drove over the median and followed us into the lot. Tom stopped at the sidewalk in front of Sears and jumped out of the truck. The two men in the other truck jumped out as soon as they had stopped behind us. We could see the gun in the one man’s belt.

Big men, they advanced on Tom. I snuck around the back of the truck, crouched, prepared to jump on their backs if they made a move on Tom. I didn’t close my door in fear they would hear the click. They didn’t seem to know there were two people in our pickup.

“Hey, guys, what’s the problem?” Tom said, his hands up. He smiled the big, gregarious smile that had rescued him in smaller scrapes.

I kept a hand on the bumper and watched.

“Tough guys, eh?” The driver, short and heavy with a denim vest, had his thumbs in his pants pocket. He had braided two lines near the bottom of his beard, which made him look faintly oriental.

“No, no. We’re not that tough.” Tom smiled, rubbed his chin with a nervous gesture.

The man with gun looked around. “Pissant rich college kids. Think you get to make fun of us?”

“No, I wasn’t making fun. I’m not rich. I’m not even in college. I work on cars, too.”

The two men didn’t seem to be listening to Tom.

“Hey, Huey, ain’t that a Thornton letter jacket?” The driver stopped his passenger’s advance with a cuff on the shoulder. Both men halted three feet from Tom. I leaned forward in case I would need to jump into the action.

“Hey, kid, is that a Thornton letter jacket?” The man with the gun put his finger on Tom’s white “T” and flicked one of the gold bars.

I felt the heat from the exhaust pipe against my leg.

“I swim.”

“What?” Both men looked at him.

“I’m a swimmer.”

“Fuck that,” the driver said.

“My sister goes to Thornton,” the driver said. He fingered the braids of his beard. The traffic around the mall continued—the girls talking with their mothers, the boys looking for parking spaces, the hum of the Sears sign—but all the light seemed deflected away from us.

“What should we do?” the second man said. I could see only the back of his jeans and the worn heels of his cowboy boots. “Let’s fuck up his truck.”

“Shit. Small fry. I guess we’ll let you go tonight.”

The two men looked at each other, smiled, and walked back to the truck. I don’t think they saw me crouched behind the fender, and I don’t think they saw me slink back to my seat.

Once our doors closed, Tom and I both breathed deeply, but we didn’t say much to each other. “I had your back,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” Tom said, not looking at me.

I got into a couple fights as a young man, and I won all of them except that fight with Albert Goins who blindsided me in the locker room after wrestling practice in junior high. We had completed our section on square dancing and had been learning about wrestling for two days. Boys and girls mingled for the dancing lessons, but now the instructors sequestered the girls on the other side of the gym, behind a giant net, where they learned to play racquetball.

Albert wrestled at two-hundred pounds, and all his friends laughed as he flicked me about the locker room like a towel being snapped at somebody’s leg. I had just pulled on my pants and didn’t know I was in danger until I hit the floor. I also didn’t know what I had done to deserve the beating, but I guessed, years later, that he had either been paid or provoked—or maybe he was simply mean. After high school, Goins played football at Colorado State University as a tackle, and the Denver Broncos signed him as an undrafted free agent, but he never got beyond carrying the clipboard. I heard later he was an alcoholic and had been living in his high school buddies’ basements until their wives got tired of him and sent him in search of a new place to stay. But I remember him standing in his underpants, arms folded, as he glowered at me, crumpled near the base of the lockers, everyone in the locker room laughing and patting him on the shoulder.

I don’t remember ever initiating a fight. I struck my friend Brian Willhite with an open fist in the face after he hit me in the jaw. When he rushed at me swinging, he said something about his little brother and how I had, apparently, insulted him. After my slap, which landed with surprising force and accuracy, he turned and ran home crying. We were thirteen. A year later, he rushed at me during play rehearsal in junior high, and I neatly side-stepped his charge, placed my hands on his shoulder, and flicked him off the stage into a row of chairs. The charge surprised me; we were talking about high school and how great it would be to meet new people. I must have learned the move from television, and I was as pleased with the clarity of my action as Brian was befuddled when he hit the hard plastic chairs and they skittered across the floor in a clatter. After looking at me for a moment, on his side, his back against a spindly steel chair leg, he ran out of the room crying. I met him again in college, accidentally, as opposing water polo players. He asked to guard me; I scored from the hole on the first entry pass. I didn’t chat with him after the game, which we won.

All three—the punch, the flick, the backhand shot to the top right of the water polo cage—were instinctual, quick reactions.

And so was hiding.

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