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[Story]

Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950

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The fight began in a tavern called the All Star, on the outskirts of Sacramento, when a young man named James Sutter leaned over and said, vaguely, as if to no one in particular, Man, do I fucking hate Okies, and a young man named Frankie Begara responded by lifting a fist to his chin and nodding his head slightly in the direction of the door, a gesture that said: Step outside! Sutter, in turn, reached up with his closed fist and gently touched a knuckle to his own chin. (The girls loved Sutter’s chin, square and dimpled in the center. That much was for sure. The girls loved the authority of his movements, the way he stepped in his expensive boots. They admired his ease, the way his tailored cowpoke gear rested on his strong shoulders.) Begara was short and husky, with thick, rounded shoulders, a shock of curly hair, and a broad face weathered from the sun. He moved with a slight hobble, as if his legs were bowed around an imaginary saddle. His heavy arms swayed loosely at his sides as he walked down the back hallway through the smell of sawdust and urinal cakes. Kicking open the back door, aware of his cheap, knockoff boots, inherited from his big brother, he felt — stepping into the warm air — a deeper inheritance that came from countless barn-loft fights with Cal, fighting until the two of them began to laugh and then his brother released his grasp, stood over him, gave him tips on technique, always ending by saying: “Don’t forget, kid. If you can’t get him honest, get him with some kind of sucker, because to lose a fight is to lose a fight, and to win one is to win one.”

Illustration by Steven Dana

Meanwhile, Sutter went out through the front door, gathering a few spectators, mostly friends, strutting lightly with anticipation. He had been trained to fight by the family handyman, Rodney — whip-thin, dressed in overalls — who would put down his wrench or rake or paintbrush to offer a few tips, saying, “Dip low with the shoulder and round yourself over the punch and get back as fast as you can, focusing your weight on the arch of your foot. As long as you’re aware of your feet — even if you’re not aware that you’re aware — as long as you keep them in mind, you’ll win.” Rodney, who was taciturn and quiet as he moved about the house, fixing things, clipping the hedge, had fought Golden Gloves in Chicago before moving West. When he spoke about fighting his words had an oracular quality. In the few seconds it took Sutter to walk around to the back of the building, where Begara was standing alone beneath the single streetlamp, rolling his shoulders, in those few seconds he had a keen sense that it had been bad form to call Begara an Okie. The Sutter line had Okie roots. His great-grandfather had come from Tulsa. But that truth — he felt this, rolling his own shoulders — was buried under recent good fortune. He was going to follow in his father’s footsteps in the fall and attend Yale. Anyway, Begara was mostly Basque, or something like that, a mixed blood that gave him that curly hair, those big shoulders, and that fireplug chest.

There were about fifteen kids behind Sutter, most of them from town. Behind Begara, a few ranch kids stared at the ground, or out at the land behind the tavern. The town kids wore genuine silver belt buckles and plaid shirts with pearl snaps, and had hair barbered close to their clean necks. The ranch kids had faded jeans and T-shirts rolled tight around their biceps, and windblown hair. They watched as Sutter threw a few phantom punches and then stopped to take off his class ring, tucking it in his watch pocket. Begara put his fists in position, scrutinizing Sutter as he touched his collar and then ran his fingers through his thick hair before putting his own fists up. The touch of the collar was the habitual move of a kid who wore a tie most of the time. It seemed to be saying: Punch me first, you two-bit dirt hopper, toss the first one at me and let’s get this started so I can get home and take a nice, long, warm bath.

The kids on Begara’s side had watched him fight enough times to know his tics, the way he retreated after landing a punch and shuffled a few seconds with his arms straight down and his chest pushed forward before heading back in. He’d taken much bigger men. Speed came cheap in these parts, but his ability to take his time, to fight carefully, seemed to come not only from the brutality of his life, from the chores he did on the ranch, lugging water lines, working the fences, and all the livestock shit, corralling and branding and shoving, but also from the patience he had learned standing in a field with a flag, waiting for the duster plane, staking out the horizon, aware of the surrounding grid of acreage. Then, with the bandanna around his mouth and the flag raised, he guided the first sweep of pesticides, standing as far to the side as possible but close enough to go back out to guide the next release, the sound of the plane fading to silence until it circled around again. As they watched Begara — in that split-second tension before he threw his first punch — they saw his weight fall back on his heels as his arm began a forward motion and suddenly retracted again as he gave a warning to Sutter, to avoid making a sucker punch. Then he threw a hard jab to Sutter’s solar plexus. It was a good, clean punch. Sutter saw it coming, but it still connected. (Some of the rich kids on Sutter’s side had not seen the warning move, or the stepping back, and scored it as a sucker punch.)

Just before the jab, in the tension as Sutter stood with his hair fluffing in the breeze, it was possible, if you were looking carefully, to see that he was thinking about his place in the world in relation to how it might look to Begara. Time lives retrospectively inside a fight. It doesn’t slow down. It tightens. The point of a fight like this was to reverse the flow of time, to reduce everything to an effect and a cause, and in doing so to erase the everyday tedium of time. Everything that happened before the jab meant something. Everything after the jab gathered meaning in the moments before it was created.

You must never disregard your place in this world in relation to the way folks see you, Sutter’s father liked to say. We’ve had good luck along the way but it was only luck, and to think of it as some God-given truth puts you in a dangerous position. To think you’re in His good graces is to throw yourself off-balance, and that way you open yourself up to the whims of those who have a better footing in the truth. (These words were usually spoken after dinner, with a flask of port glinting in the candlelight.) I’ve done some of my best speculating with a full-blown awareness that luck was the only thing involved, and not some sense that everything I have here — his father said, sweeping his arm from one end of the dining room to the other — came out of Providence, but more out of the way I’ve been able to corral my chances into a stampede. And then his thoughts would begin to unravel because he was a man who theorized and speculated beyond his abilities and often found what at first seemed to be profound and weighty thoughts breaking apart into something lacy, gauzy.

Sutter held his arms up and kept his mind on his feet. The wind suddenly rose, bringing the smell of jasmine, dust, and gasoline. In his ringing ears, he could hear the faint, absentminded whistle Rodney made in the garage when he was working alone, concentrating on something — a saw cut, or getting a wrench into position — or when he was out trimming the box hedge along the back of the house. And he was hearing that sound as he unleashed the wild, flamboyant haymaker that had begun secretly, as he was stumbling, relieving the force of Begara’s punch to his heels, transferring energy as his shoulders rotated to his left while his arm, ambling in a wide arc, moved back to catch up with the rest of his torso (his fists tightening, fingers curled) — and then, in what looked to those watching to be one fluid movement, his arm moved of its own accord, landing his fist on the point of Begara’s chin, sending him sprawling into the arms of his friends, who held him for a few seconds, saying, “Take his fucking head off, Begara, do it for your brother.”

The fight stayed inside the circle of light from the streetlamp. A daytime fight would have had no such borders. A daytime fight would often move from the back of a bar all the way to the front; or into the field; or, in some cases, depending on those fighting, it would end with the blow of an implement, a scrap of lumber or a crowbar. Nighttime fights had the formality of the circle surrounded by night wind and the cool dark.

For a few seconds, as the two fighters stood and swayed, there was a silence that expressed a need for a larger narrative. It wasn’t enough, the air said, to simply fight over the Okie comment. It wasn’t enough to have one more Sacramento fistfight between a wealthy town boy and a ranch boy. The air begged for a deeper significance.

Then someone said, “Kick that silver fucking spoon out of his teeth, Begara,” and on Sutter’s side, someone said, “Knock the clodhopper’s jaw off, clean his yokel clock,” while the girls remained silent — there were three or four of them — and pitted the elegant beauty of Sutter’s dimples and clean jaw against the rough, blunt complexity of Begara’s face.

(With the exception of a girl named Sarah Breeland, who worked the soda fountain at the five-and-dime store in town and had talked with Begara once or twice, setting a milkshake in front of him, seeing in his eyes the sophisticated kindness that came from hard toil. Knowing too, talking to him — he spoke carefully, his words barely audible in the din of the store, the cheep of canaries in the pet section, the popcorn machine popping — that he understood a certain type of quiet that came from living on the margins, not only of life but of the town itself, for she lived in a house not far from his ranch, tending her sisters while her mother went to the Sutters’ home to clean. She had gone a number of times to the Sutter house to stand with her mother and watch as she worked the iron-press, the starchy steam puffing as she pushed the lever down and made tight creases while her nimble fingers lifted and readjusted.)

Sarah caught Begara’s eye as it swayed over Sutter’s shoulder and gave him a slight smile and a nod, as if to indicate that a secret might pass between them.

Years later, she’d remember the way he had nodded back at her, once, quickly. She’d remember the taste of dust in the air and the scent of juniper. She’d see the significance, the hugeness, of that single glance, and the luck of having arrived at the tavern, hearing the shouts out back, and for some reason — she liked to think it was her deep sense of pity, of wanting to be there to care for those who were beaten — walking around to watch. She liked to think she had been looking for Begara, searching him out. But of course that wasn’t true. He was just one more ranch boy in a line of many.

As Begara lifted his shoulders and thought of his brother fighting in Korea, freezing his balls off, Sutter reached up to touch his collar again and then raked his fingers through his hair, smiling slightly before sending a quick jab to Begara’s shoulder (a true sucker punch) and then, in a flash, a cross that landed at the bottom of his jaw (a counter-sucker) and sent him stumbling to the left, staggering slightly, and then, closing in, two quick jabs to Begara’s face with his right and a hook with his left to the mouth again, knocking him to the ground. When Begara stood he looked startled and dazed. He spit a tooth to the side with an offhanded sideways motion.

Truth is, there was a deadlock of sorts at this point in the fight. Begara with his hard past and his mean father (they all knew how his father got when he was drunk) and his toil in the fields and the way he had learned to fight to the end, one way or another, and to win however he had to win, if not for the sake of his brother in Korea and the family’s ill fortune then just because the word “Okie” still resonated. Against Sutter, who had all the graces of the town’s richest kid combined with an open-ended, all-knowing sense that he was destined to win not only at fighting but at life itself, to go off to Yale at the end of the summer and frolic in the East for a few years — picking up new habits but never forgetting home — and then come back for a job at his father’s bank, taking the train through the forlorn Midwest, stopping at depots for fuel and water late at night, staring out the window at the quaint scenes: the stationmaster behind the window in the green shaded light, sorting waybills and bulletins as the train moved forward, passing through sleepy towns with houses squatting on the hillsides in the wee hours of night.

Justice didn’t seem to be factoring in at all. There was nothing at this point in time to indicate that the pain Begara’s family had endured over the years would in a single moment be sanctified and honored. There wasn’t a sense of egalitarian, all-American fair play. None of that seemed to matter. The crowd simply felt the thrill of watching Begara spit his tooth to the ground. The white, bony fragment in the dust. The glimmer of his spit. The blood on his face as he stood with his arms straight down, shoulders back, eyes glaring.

Weeks after the fight, those who knew Begara would attempt to locate a relationship between the punches he threw next and the blow that would strike him a month later when a U.S. Army car came to deliver the telegram with the news of his brother’s death. One more boy gunned down on a hillside in the Chinese counteroffensive. That kid’s brother was in Korea and that put him into a better fighting spirit! He didn’t know he was doing it, but he threw those punches in honor of his brother! He hit hard because he knew he’d get hit hard!

A punch lives and dies in a flash but continues on as a tactile memory, hovering between two souls: the way it felt for the puncher, unleashing it, and the way it felt for the person receiving it. Sutter was back on his heels, relishing his glory, destabilized, taking away his ability to regain posture, when Begara charged, closing in quick, jabbing at Sutter’s chest — the follow-up coming instantly, a second punch that sent him sideways — Begara had him in a clinch, and then, after that, an uncountable flurry, the arm moving forward and back, forward and back.

(As he received the punches, Sutter felt the shame of loss. Each punch established a home in some distant, spongy part of his mind. Each punch shook a doubt loose in his brain, and before he could shove it back, another one came, and another.)

Nobody had taught Begara how to throw a pivot blow (also known as the rabbit punch). He felt inventive as he pivoted and drew his arm back — in one quick fluid motion — and then rotated forward in a motion outlawed by professionals because it was deemed too mechanical, too precise, too blunt, too old-fashioned, too inelegantly elegant, and drawn too squarely in the air to fit in with the loopy, sweeping give-and-take of the sport. (Begara would see this punch after the fact, in a hazy retrospect, hardly remembering how it had played out until Sarah told him later, softly confessing, I’ve never seen someone punch like that.)

Much later, Begara would try to justify the rage he had felt, the thoughtlessness that had overtaken him in those final moments — when the crowd, suddenly frightened, began pulling him away — by pinning it to Sarah’s glance, her deep brown eyes, the way she had nodded at him over Sutter’s shoulder.

Sutter called me an Okie. That’s what started it all. I didn’t mean to give him a concussion, or break his jaw. But like my brother told me, the only good fight is one you win, and only winning makes it a good fight. I’m sure that because your mother worked for the Sutter family, and because he was the way he was, he probably tried to make a move on you, at one point or another.

A few years later, in Arizona, sitting out on the patio with a beer after working the day shift, watching Sarah lift the laundry to the line, a clothespin in her beautiful mouth, her thin arms freckled, her windblown hair bleached blond, Begara thought about that fight, saw it filtered and bent through time, beginning with the summer romance it had inspired, driving in his truck on back roads, stopping to take the old horse blanket out of the trunk, spreading it across the warm hood, lying back against the windshield to watch for shooting stars. The fight was filtered through the night, a few weeks later, as they lay hip to hip, hand in hand, and she began to talk — her voice husky, deep, arriving out of the depths of her lovely neck, saying, Frankie, there’s something I wanted to tell you, about Sutter, and he said, Yeah, go on, and she said, You were kind of right, about him making the moves on me when Mom was working at his house.

He was putting into retrospect the sight he’d caught of her in that slight lull in the action, when the crowd grew quiet and stood back and waited. Just a quick glance, nothing special, really. One more of those girls during a break in a fight, some spectator in a skirt and bobby socks with a fresh young face looking on with a lovely presence, lipstick bright and shiny and perfect against her pale skin, pleading with her eyes, seeming to make a judgmental statement, the eyes squinting for a half-second as if trying to see into his own while saying: It isn’t enough to see this fight as simply tit for tat, one guy baiting another into a rumble to pass time, to get a better sense of who was who in the pecking order. It isn’t enough to explain it as a rite of passage, as something to break apart the brittle tension between the Sutters of the world — flush with entitlement, with fresh laundered shirts, the iron creases still visible — and ranch kids with a history going back to the hop pickers and the migrant crews that came for free potatoes and shelter and waited a few weeks until the hops were ripe and ready to be picked, feeling at night the firm, hard pressure of the ladder rungs under their feet, the lug of the bag strap pulling their shoulders. This has to be — her face in the crowd said — part of a wider story, and that story should include me, later, afterward, because we’re gonna use it to find out that we love each other, and this fight, this first meeting of sorts, will get us talking, sharing a give-and-take that will come from learning that in spite of the fact that I dress well, and hold myself with comportment, at least as you saw me in a glance, in the heat of the fight, with most of your mind on Sutter, and the bearing of a rich girl, you’ll come to learn that I’m really just another poor girl on a scholarship to the Young Woman’s Academy, an outsider as much as you are, so that years later — right now, Begara thought, on the patio, me and this beer and my own little house, not much but my own, and the baby on the way — you will remember this fight and look back at it remembering how we met up afterward and how I told you, as she did, saying, Momma was downstairs in the laundry room, ironing, and Sutter came up to me in the kitchen and then he started grabbing at me, playing around, yeah, but grabbing while I told him to stop it.

A few days after the fight she had tried to tell him about Sutter. They were in the soda fountain and she was again placing before him a tall chrome shaker of malted milk. Behind him, the smell of popcorn and the cedar chips from the pet cages combined with the woody clomping of customers and the sharper sound of the men along the counter clinking their silverware to make her words inaudible. What did you say? he said. I’ll tell you later, she said, and then she went down the counter to tend to another customer, holding her check pad up as she walked, attentive and sure. He watched her and shook his head and went back to his milkshake.

I felt a vindication, he was saying, out on the patio, leaning back in a rusty lawn chair, bringing the beer to his lips.

She was removing a handkerchief from her hair, pulling it down around her neck and fingering the knot. Beyond her — on the edge of Tucson — the sunlight burned against the foothills.

When I kicked the shit out of that Sutter fellow, I felt it then. It’s as if I knew you’d tell me that story you told, he said. He took another sip and watched as she shook her head softly to the side and then smoothed her dress against her hips, thrusting her belly out, patting it gently with the flat of her hand, turning to give him a profile view as he sipped the beer.

Ah, forget it, he said, and he meant it. He wanted to bury that night in the past with the other painful moments: standing out in the field after the duster. The spray bitter and tarlike. The bandanna tied to his mouth. Mending the fences with his fingers bleeding. Leaning into the crushing weight of stubborn livestock. His father’s thick hands on the belt.

I was just thinking, he said, watching as she hung the bag of pins on the line and walked over and settled down into the chair beside him. Suddenly they were simply two more married souls on the edge of a new development, two more sharing a moment together, relishing a sensation of glory, waiting for the first stars to appear.

Where’d you come up with a word like that? she said.

A word like what? he said, patting his own belly.

Vindication, she said, smiling. He loved the look on her face. He loved her face. He loved the down on her neck. Honey, that’s a look that gets me through the day, he sometimes said. When I’m folding boxes, or loading a pallet onto a truck, I think of that look. When I’m punching the clock, that’s the smile that gets the card into the slot.

Just came to me as I was thinking things over, he said.

She turned and looked beyond the yard and they settled into the kind of silence they would, later in the marriage, take for granted. Now it created a tension, a paradoxical sense of needing to speak and stay silent at the same time. But years later, after a move to Cleveland, they’d feel keenly that this kind of quiet was what love became when it hardened into history, one day after another passing behind them, because the shared sense of destiny that began that night, during the fight, would never leave. It was the secret, they both liked to believe, they had exchanged in that first glance: a boy looking up, his face sweat-sheening and tight, and a girl looking on, pursing her lips slightly the way she had seen on older girls, that went beyond her mother working in the Sutter household or his own misery at the time. It was the secret of their future destiny. That’s what they liked to believe. That’s what they continued to believe for the rest of their lives.

You weren’t thinking about vindication when it was happening. He hit you hard, if I remember correctly, and then you hit him harder, and he hit you a little bit harder and you lost that tooth, and then you happened to be the one who hit him the hardest in the end, she said.

I fought dirty. Time’s gonna be the final judge, but I fought dirty.

I love you anyway, she said.

And I love you anyway, he said, feeling the cool patio stones on his bare feet.

In Cleveland he’d claim: I knew it right then. I knew your name and that your ma worked for Sutter’s folks. That put the fuel in me and made me want to kill that bastard. I guess I’d even go so far as to say I knew exactly what you were thinking, somehow, and had it all figured out.

Much later — maybe in Detroit, or their last year in Toledo — he’d remember it differently. He had looked at her and known intuitively that Sutter had tried some kind of funny business in the kitchen, or up in the maid’s quarters, or down in the laundry room, maybe shoving her back onto a pile of dirty sheets and fondling her, reaching up and under her shirt while she tried to fight back, feeling the shame and fear that came when a boy tried something with a girl, knowing that if she said anything her mother would lose her job. In later years he’d slip that into the story when they talked it over. As he aged, it seemed too much that he had beaten Sutter before he had learned the story. He had gone at Sutter not out of a sense of dignity or honor, or even because of the slight about being an Okie, and only after the fight — when the parking lot cleared and somehow he got close enough, caught up with her, tapped her shoulder, his face still bloody, his eyes bruised, and said hello, leaning forward, trying to wink but instead wincing, slightly confused because she had the high, clean forehead and hairdo of a rich girl even though she wasn’t — maybe he knew that much, understood that she was the daughter of the kind of woman who would do the Sutters’ laundry. Who else but someone like her would appear at the end of a fight, in the lonely parking lot, and lend a hand, touching his cut and saying it needed to be stitched, simply standing there without fear at the sight of his battered face?

is the author of a novel, Hystopia, and four collections of short fiction. His essay “The Old Man” appeared in the June 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2017