“Self-Preservation” By Kevin Brown

Cars usually worked well. Joey or Alan would decide which way to go, and I would run away, try to angle a path to my house, hoping I would outrun them at least to my yard, believing I would be safe there. Getting beaten up felt like a hobby I had taken on, not of my own free will, as if my parents were making me take piano lessons, and I needed to go practice every afternoon. In this case, I practiced taking punches.

I’m not sure why they bothered to beat me up, save for the boredom of boyhood we all experienced. Perhaps I did something wrong or said something wrong—I was (and am) a smart-aleck who makes snide comments, often too loudly. Somehow we would all be playing, and then I would realize I needed to find a car, move to the other side of it, and see if I could get away one more time.

Alan was a  regular attacker, partly because he lived right next door to me, partly because he and I played together much more often, partly because we were the same age (Joey was actually younger, but much tougher), and partly because he seemed to take more joy in it. Joey was more likely to lose his temper which lead to his chasing someone, usually me, wanting to hurt them for some reason. Joey didn’t seem to want to fight people; it was something he felt compelled to do. Alan at least appeared to enjoy it.

I have to confess, though, that all of us beat each other up, at one time or another. I wasn’t only the one who received the beating; I sometimes doled it out, though always fighting the kids who were younger than me. I could claim that I was smaller than others in the neighborhood—which was true; I was about as big (or small) as those one or two years younger—but they were really the only ones I had a chance in a fight with (Joey is the notable exception).

My most memorable fight came against Kenboy (his father’s name was Kenneth, so we called him by this nickname until he turned twelve, and then he decided he wanted to be Kenneth from that point on, as well; it was his way of telling us he was growing up). It worked out in three rounds, or that’s how we talked about it later. As with all of the other fights, I can’t remember why it started, but it moved from his house, to our carport, to Alan’s yard, and, as with almost every fight I had with someone where I actually fought instead of running around cars, it effectively ended in a draw.

His best moment was when we were in the carport and he threw a wild hook that landed on my left shoulder, somehow knocking me off balance and taking my legs out from under me. If we were in a boxing match, I would have gotten a standing eight count for it, as I got up relatively quickly, but not quickly enough. I saved my best for the final round, the one in Alan’s front yard. I’m not sure if Alan was there or not, though several other kids from the neighborhood were. As with school fights, there was usually a crowd wanting to see what would happen.

I somehow knocked him down this time, and I had a clear view of his profile. I wound up and threw a straight right at his face. He didn’t see it coming. It didn’t matter. I missed, my fist flying millimeters in front of his nose. The fight ended soon after that. We made up and went back to playing whatever it was we were playing before the fight broke out. Given how often we all saw each other, our fights were usually quick and quickly resolved.

I’ve thought about that punch for more than thirty years now, and I’ve wondered why I missed his face. It was a perfect set up, and I had thrown enough punches by that point in my life that there’s no way I should have missed him, especially not missed him completely. The only truth I can conclude is that I didn’t really want to hit him in the face. I liked Kenboy a lot, and I really didn’t want to fight him ever, so I believe I just couldn’t bring myself to hit him in such a personal way, which is what a punch to the face is. It somehow matters more than the ones we threw to each other’s shoulders or stomachs.

Even Alan and Joey seldom hit me in the face, always aiming for the body. We didn’t fight like we see kids do in the movies where there are bloody noses, black eyes, and even broken noses. I can’t remember any of us having any marks on our faces after a fight. We usually ended up holding our stomachs, where punches didn’t feel pleasant, but they also didn’t leave lasting trauma, usually going away after ten or fifteen minutes.

Our fighting was more ritualistic than real anger or intention to hurt the other boy. It was almost like we felt we had to fight because we were boys. Out of all the fights I was in, I only remember one happening because someone was mad at me. Even then, Kelly had to be egged into fighting me after I pushed him during a basketball game. He didn’t want to do it, but he felt he had to, to save his reputation in the neighborhood.

We watched movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone when we were growing up, so that’s where we found our ideals of masculinity. We didn’t have the weaponry they had in most of their movies, but we could try to be men by hitting one another. We ended up punching like they did in the movies, though, we did so in a way that made us look like we were hurting each other, but really simply mimicked a fight that nobody wanted to happen.

There was one exception, though, and I was only involved tangentially. I’m not even sure it was a worse beating, but that’s how I remember it. In my memory, Alan comes up behind Kelly, a boy at least two years younger, and he starts pummeling him, beating him when he’s on the ground, hitting him in the face again and again. It continues until the bus driver that had just let Kelly off the bus gets out, causing Alan to run away. I doubt it happened as dramatically as that, but I should know exactly what it looked like since I was standing right there.

It’s not just that I didn’t stop Alan; I actually helped him. My job was to stand there when Kelly got off the bus and get his attention so Alan could come up behind him. The bus driver even yelled at me when Alan ran away, as he saw quite clearly what had happened: he knew I was involved. I don’t remember why Alan was mad enough at Kelly to actually plan out an attack, nor why he involved me.

Even more so, I have no idea why I helped Alan. The easiest answer is the most disturbing, though probably also the likeliest: Alan threatened to beat me up if I didn’t help him, and I would rather have helped him hurt Kelly than take the beating myself. Most of us like to think we were not the type of person who would do such a thing when we were younger (or even now), but there’s no way I can think that about myself. When I remember missing Kenboy’s face with the punch, I think that we care about each other too much, underneath it all, to really hurt one another. And then I remember what I did to Kelly, and I know that we care about ourselves much more.

Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.kevinbrownwrites.com/.

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