Story — From the October 2017 issue

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.

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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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