You know, I find it quite remarkable today, at the age of 33, reflecting the long gone days of my tender adolescence. Time’s winged chariot takes me on fleeting excursions, down the long, spiraling chasm of memory, where the shimmering treasures of my childhood lay. Back . . . back . .  way back——to the blazing hot summer of 1962—when I was a scrawny, snotty—nose kid, growing up hard and fast in the sprawling urban wilds of Philadelphia.

It is a time and place that I will never forget, because there is a particular incident that lay dormant that I could never attempt to obliterate from my mind: the first and lasting experience with violence. I had never even been in a fight before. Well, not until I met “Chubby,” a tough neighborhood kid. He introduced me to the first harsh cruelty of life, a lesson I will never forget.

My parents rented a neat, red brick rowhouse on Thirteenth Street, between Montgomery Avenue and Berks Street, in the heart of North Philadelphia. All of the houses were three—stories, and in the far distance they seemed to sigh as they rose skyward like primeval fortresses under a blazing calm. Every year or so, when the neighbors had nothing else to do, they went about the perennial Cask of painting the front of their houses dazzling colors. The finished works took on the look of an iridescent rainbow, etched into a gaudy urban myriad, sprawled against the Prussian—blue sky.

Frankly, I could never quite understand why the neighbors even bothered to restore the crumbling facades. Even before the paint was dry, the plodding graffiti artists crept up during the night and defaced those buildings, some badly. I would hear the grumbling neighbors airing their complaints to Mr. Davis, the slum landlord, who never did anything about anything. The guy was practically the invisible man, until rent day, and even then he’d retreat as quickly as he had come.

Across the street from our house sat a little baroque face church, where every Sunday the raucous black preacher roused his tiny congregation with his fiery, Hell and brimstone sermons. The church, ironically, was nestled between a urine—stained, garbage—strewn alley and Mrs. Virginia’s rowdy speakeasy. You could always hear something unusual going on in Mrs. Virginia’s: some drunken slob bickering about the service, some down—in—the doldrums spinster whining about “her old man done left her,” some old guy getting ripped off for his Social Security check, or some aspiring sleight—of— hand cheap hustler getting himself sliced up like roast beef because someone had caught him foisting a card from under the bottom of the deck. (Thirteenth Street was one great big zoo.)

Two doors away lived Mr. John and his drink-sozzled wife. Almost every night, through the paper—thin walls, I’d hear Mr. John beating his wife up. She must have really liked it, because always after her bouts of weeping fizzled out, or seemingly after her renascent interludes, she’d start back up on him with verbal assaults, and so it went that he’d continue flogging her. Oh, and then there was Miss Annie Mae. . . She lived on the corner of Thirteenth Street in a house adjacent to Montgomery Avenue. Miss Annie Mae had the best house on the block and some said this was so mainly because the landlord, Mr. Davis, bent over backwards at her slightest whim. It was rumored he was her secret lover and for that, she didn’t even have to pay any rent.


Well, this did not put Miss Annie Mae in good standing with those grumpy old ladies who seemed to never fall short of something to gossip about. They sat in their secret war council, denigrating the poor girl. Anyway, it was impossible to get near this group. You could always hear them burbling n about something, but you couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying because they muffled the sounds with their bony hands. And so one day I caught them puttering around outside of a house, sweeping the sidewalk.

I was able to float within proximity and in the process I intercepted snatches of conversation. They were saying, “Yeah, chile, that girl ain’t nothin’ but a no good tramp.”

“Uh—huh, a Jezebel she is.”

“Ain’t it the truth? I sees all kind of mans comin’ in and out of her house all times of night.”

“O—o—o, shame, chile!” they chimed. And the community at large peppered her with insults when, at five o’clock in the morning, Reverend Daniels was caught redhanded sneaking out of her abode. The fastidious old ladies prodded the good reverend for an explanation. And he explained painfully, but tactfully, that he’d merely dropped in to kindly offer his blessings to this poor wretched child. He said it was his duty as an ordained servant of the Lord to deliver her soul from evil. Even at five in the morning. After all she’s still a child of God, he said.

I perceived with clarity that those old ladies were insanely jealous of 1iss Annie Mae, this eupeptic, mocha—skinned beauty whose sheer earthy essence was in itself a cruel reminder of their own fading beauty, dissipating in the winds of time. She only had to sweep past them and their bugose visages turned to stone and fire and ice.

Oh, but how I liked Miss Annie Mae! A classical beauty she was! Tall, elegant, with graceful feline qualities. The cheap perfume she wore threw a redolent aura about her. Everyday she’d give me shiny nickels for going to the store for her. And when I returned, she’d lean over, run her sleek, manicured hands through my brown, curly hair, smear my cheeks with those juicy, red lips and coo, “O—o—o—h, Baby, you’re so sweet. Sweeter than sugar.” I couldn’t stop blushing.

There was a neighborhood watering hole on Thirteenth also. And on those slow, harrowing weekends most of the adults filed into the infamous “13th Street Bar & Grill,” directly on Berks Street, on the left hand side of the street, on the far corner. It was an. inauspicious place. It attracted some of the scuzziest, rowdiest characters along that vast concrete terrain. A few minutes before closing time, the carousing patrons would become embroiled in battle. These nasty brawls spilled out of the bar over into the street, up from the corner to the middle of the block. At this point people burst out of their houses and, in the delirious night heat the throng gave it their all. It was really crazy.

Anyway, the cops always broke these free—for—ails up. Under the vibrant glare of the blaring sirens I would see the white uniformed police swinging their clubs up beside their sweat—drenched, crimpy heads. And people were thrown headfirst into paddy wagons, heir arms pinwheeling for balance. I saw grownups being led away in gleaming handcuffs, blood trickling down their distorted brown faces, muttering something about their civil rights being violated and the racist cops would surely hear from the NAACP.

On Sunday mornings, all the bars were respectfully closed,and on Thir— teenth Street you couldn’t even hear a sound, not even a conch—note. Well, the moment they church doors swung open, Mrs. Virginia had the unabashed audacity to open up for business. She made a killing! She’d stand in her doorway, her hands on her wide, branching hips, boldly soliciting customers on their way into the church. She’d say, “Come on in, Honey. Alil’ bitty taste ain’t no sin. Even Jesus drank a lii’ wine at the Last Supper. And Honey, you know you ain’t no better than Jesus!”

I would vehemently protest when my momma hustled me and my little sister across the street into that church. I hated it because it was hot and funky and reeked fumes of alcohol. I’d see the same people who were involved in those Saturday night free—for—alls. Fresh out of jail, they’d be huddled in the pews, looking innocent and all dapper in their Sunday best, Holier than Thou, pointing fingers. There I’d sit, miserable in my starched white shirt and tight Goodwill shoes that hurt like Hell, whining.

Above the dragging, sickening wail of the church organ, the Reverend Daniels ranted on and on about fornicators and drunks, and niggers destined for the fires of Hell. His high—pitched, staccato voice crackled with the burning fires of emotion, and as he spoke ropey veins stood out on his neck as he jabbed daintily at beads of sweat cascading down his glistening bald pate.
I couldn’t bear too much of this smoky, nauseating atmosphere. Infinitely bored, I’d usually nod off to sleep at this point, dreaming. But just as soon as I was midway into my dreams, suddenly I’d be jolted awake by a loud commotion. Let me tell you, the joint would be jumping! The organ player smoking! I saw people crying, screaming, rolling over that dirty wooden floor! Red, bulging eyes whirled feverishly in their sockets, arms flailing about wildly, feet kicking. Those grownups were acting plum crazy! Even Momma would be caught in the euphoria of the wild excitment, swaying to the funky soulful beat.

“Lawd, chile, they got the Holy Ghost!” she’d exclaim. Well, I admit, those grownups sure looked spooked all right. If you would have asked me then to explain this apoplectic condition, I wouldn’t have had the faintest inkling. The only reasonable explanation I probably would have come up with, and even then I wouldn’t have said it with adamant conviction, was that they’re suffering from this terrible internal itch Chat was driving them mad, really freaking them out, because they just couldn’t stick their hands down inside to scratch the damn thing. It was the funniest thing lever saw. I cracked up. Momma would turn and catch me in my laughing fits and rap tue hard on the head with her pocketbook.

In the evenings it was hot and sticky. Soddened articles of clothing clung to steaming bodies like unwanted layers of craggy skin. The dreadful heat was so unbearable that the neighbors scrambled out of oven—like houses. Most of them could not afford the modern—day convenience of an electric fan, so they sought refuge on the front steps.

They glistened like huge marble columns in the ancient city of Rome. They were smooth and cool. (Of course there were some who made their own hand—held fans.) Young yotuen wearing bright summer skirts and greasy Dixie Peach hairdos sat around gossiping about the latest episode of Search for Tomorrow, the drone of car engines muffling their lisping shrill. Cool, slick daddies wearing their chemical processes, pleated pants and shiny patent leather shoes cruised down Thirteenth Street, in stylish convertible Cadillacs. Horns blared above the rapturous sounds of the Temptations kicking it out on the hi—fi and the dreamy, giggling young women would coquettishly bat their lashes. Dignified old men hunched over tattered wooden benches arguing heatedly over checkers, spitting tobacco residue into the distance, swatting pesky mosquitoes.

On Thirteen Street there were a thousand different worlds, everyone moving in different directions, yet no one going anywhere. Yet it was our little world. A world all of our own. You could see teenaged girls in short shorts and bobby socks, jumping rope in perfect rhythm on he sidewalk and contemplative little boys shooting gleaming marbles at targets in the dirt.

You could see the sun’s sleepy eye drooping close. My momma would wait until the sun went down and it was then that she’d dress me up in a jazzy outfit (a bright dress shirt, little clip—on bow tie, and matching shorts). She’d brush my hair and grease down my bony legs. Then Momma would give me money for ice cream, sit. me on the white marble steps, kiss my cheek and then retreat into the house. She did this every evening. She was afraid for me playing in the street. She wouldn’t even let me go to the playground. She knew that I was an awkward, uncoordinated kid, who bruised easily, and she didn’t want to see me get hurt out there in the wilds.

Lanquishing on the steps, I was merely a tiny brown dot obscured amid this black undulating sea of humanity. And as the cool winds ruffled my hair, I dreamed of things too large or small for my blunted mind to even comprehend, like Miss Annie Mae. Sw/eet music flowed from my little red transistor radio and there was absolutely nothing that could tear me away from my romantic reveries but the sharp, insistent sound of the bell on the cream truck.

“Getcha ice cream, kids! All kinds; come and get it! Getcha ice cream, kids!” The fat ice cream man’s cheery voice boomed out of the megaphone, over the tingling carillon melody. Kids leaped out of nowhere and dashed up to the truck that had taken up position in the middle of the street. At the tiny window they pushed and shoved for position, and there were little quarrels.

Always with a broad, engaging smile the fat white ice cream man poked his blond head out of the window, a. meaty arm extended for coin. At this gesture the kids pressed in tight like a brood of young brown puppies desperately bunching up for the sweet milk in their mother’s bulging sacs.

Well, I was always the last one in line. You see, I couldn’t run very fast because as I told you before, those tight Goodwill shoes were really painful. My little feet felt like they were on fire. Anyway, I was in no position to complain, because Momma had gotten them really cheap – $l.95. Hey, it was the best she could do! Plus, no one had a lot of money on our street. No one starved, though. Scrimped, yes. But no one starved.

Anyway, it was much better when the ice cream man peddled his little bicycled cart down our street. He’d just pull up to the curb and dole out popcicles. But he stopped this daily routine. This made him too vulnerable to Chubby and his gang, who would jump the poor man, rip the change purse off his waist, snatch handfuls of popcicles from the compartment and run. The guy must’ve grown tired of chasing those rotten kids, and of course, getting mugged, and so now the ice cream company sent him out into the war zone in a vehicle that resembled an armored truck. A wire mesh screen covered the sliding glass window. And after the man slid back the pane you had to stick your arm up through a tiny slit in the screen.

You could hear the buzzing hum of the machine as it spilled milky twirls of luscious cream over the crusty cone. Then the ice cream man would stick the delicious thing back through the tiny square slit. There was no chance of Chubby’s stickup gang jamming this baby. It was solid.

One evening I had just purchased my ice cream cone and had taken my seat when, out of the edge of my eye, I saw Chubby loping toward me, his face creased in a sinister smile. Chubby was a tough neighborhood kid. He had a bad reputation. l’d seen him whip kids twice his size. This kid was a born pugilist! His older brother was a leader of the notorious “Twelfth and Oxford Street Gang,” and from the looks of it, Chubby’s place of honor in the gang was already blueprinted. Now my eyes bulged wide with terror as I watched him ascending the steps, his eyes a murderous gleam.

“Gimme that, chump!” he snarled, yanking my strawberr’y ice cream cone from my weak, trembling grasp. I relented. Speechless, my mouth hanging wide open, I stared at him in exasperation. Like a lapping dog he deliberately devoured my sumptious ice cream cone with pure delight, the pink, sweet cream curling up over his wide, glistening tongue. What was so humiliating was that he did it with a calm, contemptuous smile. I was chagrined! I clenched my fist in anger and rage. But I couldn’t last out. I was frozen with awed, solemn fear. I couldn’t even move, just sat there, capitulating.

I was being watched. All eyes were upon me. Everyone in the street, on the steps and sidewalks, leaning out of windows, crouched in doorways, and even floating pedestrians stopped in mid—stride seemed to be watching this scene with curious amusement. Their very motion seemed stilled in a timeless frame of ocular twilight, their composures black stone.

Painfully I watched as Chubby rammed the remaining portion of my crusty, golden cone down the deep valley of his meaty throat. A sense of longing overwhelmed me. Then he reached up and with a meaty paw wiped his bloated mouth with the back of it. His eyes sparkled. I could hear his stomach regurgitating. Then at the pit of his throat there was a bubbling noise as he let out an “a—a—a—h” and licked his lips dreamily.

“Lemme see that!” he snapped again. And before I knew it, his flabby arm shot out, seized my wrist, and wrestled my transistor radio from my puny hand. He was strong. At first he held it gingerly, playfully, turning it over and over as if carefully examining it for defect. He looked like a dumbfounded ape, peering at his reflection in a mirror for the very first time. His pudgy fingers spun the dial, and as he did this an eerie cackle of stations blurred by. I sat there, transfixed, wishing for this charade to end. Then, as if no longer interested in my gleaming little wonder, he gave a flashing muscular flick of the wrist and smashed my transistor radio onto the pavement.

“My radio!” I screamed in horror and dismay, watching it burst to pieces. Red particles splintered everywhere. I couldn’t believe my eyes, awestruck.

 Before I could even recover from this tragedy, suddenly I felt a great prickly wave of pain stabbing my chest. Chubby, this crazy, rotten kid, had me in a choke hold! Like a rag doll he picked me up, tossed me off the steps, and I tumbled to the ground. “Come on, sucker, fight,” he sneered, standing over me.

When I didn’t answer, he reached down, and with his covetous claws, he ripped my shirt. I was crawling on my knees when a hammer—like blow, then another, and another, sharp, wrecking, sent rivers of hot pain rippling through my body. I screamed. I saw stars, all colors, sizes and shapes. Through the misty haze I could see Chubby’s blurry outline. He was dancing, jumping about, his fist raised. “Come on, sucker, fight!”

I was tired of all this. Enough was enough. I had to show him that be couldn’t take advantage of me! Anger surged through my veins like hot lava and the ebulition of feline cruelty suddenly seized me with wild fury. I rose unsteadily, waving my clenched fists in a weak gesture of protest. But Chubby contemplated this with glee, and so at that moment he sprang forward, arms . flailing. I raised iuy fist, shakily, but then I thought about it, and as Chubby lurched toward me, I burst into tears and ran screaming for my mother.

My mother was standing at the stove; hearing the commotion, she spun, eyes wide, smoothing her apron.

 “Oh, baby,” she moaned, “What on earth happened to you?”

“H—h—he b—beat me up, mama,” I cried hysterically, tears streaming down my bloodied face.

“Who baby, who beat you up?”

“Ch—ch—chubby, mama. . . Chubby did it!”

“Oh, my lawd!” my mother cried out. And then she snatched me up into her arms. My mother’s heart bled seeing me this way. She couldn’t believe it. Only hours earlier she’d dressed me up and sat me on the steps. Now this. I was a bloody mess. It looked like I’d been run over by a Mac truck—— demolished!

My mother thought it prudent to have a little talk with the boy’s mother. She stormed out of the house, my bewildered little sister tottering at her heels. But she returned angrier than she had left. She told my father that his mother couldn’t be reasoned with, that she had pleaded with the woman to restrain the belligerent youth from these random, unprovoked attacks. He had no right harrassing me, my mother told her, just because he was bigger than me. I had a right to sit on my front steps.

“You should try to teach that boy some manners,” Mother said, “‘cause my baby is sweet. He don’t start no fights. We raised him better than that” Now that was well said, Momma. Uh—huh. But that didn’t stop Chubby from his devilish conniptions. Ub—ub. No, Ma’am. The bastinadoes continued day after day, week after week.

Damn, that boy was a little skulking black demon, who turned my ‘sunshiny days into a nightmarish hell. I was a nervous wreck! He chased me to summer school in the mornings, and when school let out, back home. He chased me to and fro, up and down the street, around corners, down alleys, and in and out of the candy store. I never ran so much in my young life. Even despite those tight Goodwill shoes, which were scruffy and worn by this time. I even ran in my sleep and I found myself running when he wasn’t even around. My blunted, delusionary mind was seized in a state of apprehension and fear.

 My mother suffered as much as I did. She found it really difficult remaining calm and passive in the face of such a tragic affair. But my mother was stubborn, and she was not about to just shut rue up in the house for the remainder of the summer. It was even more absurd to think that she’d give me an extended furlough from summer school. However, she didn’t make me sit on the front steps anymore. Now that was an ethereal relief. I just knew my mother would think of something; I just knew she would.

There was talk in the neighborhood that Chubby’s mother and my mother were going to square off in a duel. Of course that all it was, frivolous talk, of no credible merit. But Thirteenth Street was also a rumor factory. And when they spread you could bet that band of sniveling old ladies were hunched over nearby holding the gasoline.

My mother was not a violent person. But she had a bad temper. Her doctor had advised her to restrain from all strenuous activity, especially fits of rage, because in the summer of 1962 my mother was pregnant again. Other than being hampered by pregnancy, I believe my mother would have accommodated those old ladies’ wishes. She would have met that lady in the middle of the street, legs straddled, body erect, eyes straight ahead——the way I had seen the gun— fighters do in those old cowboy movies. Chubby’s mom wouldn’t have had a chance. Mother would’ve cut loose on her like all fire and smoke.


With a little boy’s eyes I can see clearly a particular episode that I could never forget. It was actually the first time I’d ever seen my mother throw a tantrum. It was a Friday night, payday, and my father hadn’t come home yet. Mother was a bit worried because my father sometimes drank or gambled away his paychheck, and so my Mother snatched me by the arm and together we went looking for him. Our desperate search didn’t take long.

We found him in the corner bar. There, propped up on a stool, was my father, and squirming around on his lap was Miss Annie Mae, the neighborhood tramp, with my father’s white Panama straw hat perched on her head at a gaudy angle. Father was just grinning away, showing all pearly 32’s, but when he saw my mother standing in the doorway, his face went a dull ashy gray. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

Like an agile cat, she went for Miss Annie Mae’s eyes, but she leaped off the stool and scurried out the side door before my mother’s groping claws could find their mark. Miss Annie Mae reminded me of a frightened mouse.


My father was feigning indifference, putting on a false show for the guys. He was laughing and when my mother turned back to him, he shrugged and opened his mouth, as if to say, “Aw, Baby Doll, Annie Mae don’t mean to me. I was just havin’ a lii’ fun, Baby. That’s all. It’s you that I love.” But before he knew it, Mother hauled off and sucker—punched him square in the kisser.

It had to be a sting blow, for Father went veering off the stool, his arms pinwheeling for balance. My mom pawed at him with crisp, impotent jabs. They snapped his head back. He looked confused. Then Mom moved in, going for the jugular, and dropped a smattering of awkward right hands on the center of his chin. Flush! There was a dull meaty thud. My father was vacillating, careening toward Perdition. You could see that he was visibly shaken.

Well, anyway, Mom was doing pretty damned good until she got careless. Unwittingly, in her haste to inflict pain, she dropped her left hand, exposing her scrawny, unguarded chin, and at that moment my father came over top with a desperate right hand of his own.

Poor Mom. I could tell he’d hurt her, because she went backward, her face wide with painful surprise, her eyes glazed over, her body sagging to the floor. In wide—eyed wonder I watched this comic—tragic scene. And there was an almost savage beauty in the moment when my father daintily caught my mother in his arms just before her body touched the floor.

There was never the slightest doubt in my mind that he loved her——and she him. No random, momentary acts of pleasure with whores of questionable scruples or men with pure sexual motives have ever driven a permanent wedge between the unstinting love my mother and father have for each other. Even today, after thirty—three years of marriage, they’re still together. Though the grace of time has mellowed them religiously, they still find time for their quirky little arguments, fueled now with less energy and fervor. But there is a wonderful coalescent beauty in this also, because they always seem to kiss and make up, just as they have always done.

Chubby wasn’t just satisfied beating me up, with Bogarding my ice cream; now he began talking about my mother. “Your mama got big holes in her drawers.” “And she stink like a pig!” “Your mama sho’ is black, blue—black. Midnight black!”

Now this was really cruel. The dirty bastard was lying through his buck teeth. Everyone on Thirteenth Street knew that my mother was very attractive. Her complexion was mocha—colored, her dark eyes, sensuously long, prominent cheekbones, with luxurious black hair undulating soulfully across slim, petite shoulders. When she moved, it was as if the earth parted for a majestic African queen. Her smile was ever—present.

Chubby knew my mother was fine. But he still persisted in prodding me for new discovered weaknesses. He tried everything. Still I wouldn’t fight. Yet he knew I found no humor at all in these perjorative terms. He knew I found it utterly distasteful talking about someonets mother, especially mother. I just didn’t dig that sort of thing; it wasn’t cool. Not if you wanted to live a long and prosperous life. And so I’s safe to say now that in actuality, Chubby was really talking about his own mother. Man, she was ug—g—g—ly! I put this in the back of my mind and held back ray fury.

During this time my mother abandoned all hope of ever reasoning with Chubby’s mother. It was apparent she was putting him up to this and my mother couldn’t understand why on earth she sanctioned or condoned his vicious behavior. However, she decided that the only recourse to abate these attacks was to defend myself. There was just no other way.


“The very next time he hit you, I want you to hit him back. You hear me, boy?”

“Uh—huh,” I muttered.

“I’m tired of that boy hittin’ on you! I’m sick and tired of you runnin’ in here cryin’ and ub carryin’ on! You ain’t no baby no more, Reginald. You’re almost eights !Llow it’s time for you to fight back!” Mother wrangled. “You hear me talkin’ to you, boy?”


{C}{C}I fidgeted. “Y—yes, Ma’am,” I said, afraid to breath. “I hears you, mama.”


“Then you come in this house one mo’ time, just one mo’ time, with your clean clothes dirty and–” She paused to catch her breath, then came back, her voice much stronger, “and I’m gonna whup your behind myself!”

I didn’t say anything because my mother was really getting nasty. I didn’t like her like this—breathing all hard and holding her bloated stomach.

I didn’t like her this way, her eyes all red and crazy looking. I was scared. I just wanted her to calm down. But I seemed to make her even madder with my pouting reticence, and she went for her strap.

“You want uh whuppin’?” she said, waving that long, ugly thing that
looked like a snake.

“Uh—uh, mama,” I said, my head shaking spastically. .“Naw, mama, I—I
don’t want no whuppin’, naw I . .

“Then you better fight back!”

 I wondered off, my mind whirling in abysmal confusion. I wasn’t about to doubt my mother if she said she was going to whip me. Uh—uh. She was going to whip me. Uh—huh. She meant it all right. She had a monstrous black leather belt that gleamed wickedly. Occasionally she greased it down for a smooth sliding—off effect and at the slightest infraction, she swung that dreadful thing down hard on my taut, naked behind. Mother said it was the wrath of God, and I truly believed her.

I went shuffling off to my father to solicit his advice. Plus, he could get Mom to calm down, because she was really acting weird. My father was noncommittal. He just lifted his gaze up from his newspaper and mumbled something like, “Fight ‘mm, kid. It’ll make you a man——fight ‘im.” That’s all he said. He never said much of anything anyway, and I was pretty damn lucky to pry those few words from his lips.

Every evening he’d come home from work, eat, then sit in his chair, read his newspaper, and go to bed. All this he did without a word. The guy didn’t even talk to my mother. Well, except maybe late at night. Through the bedroom wall I’d hear him whispering something to my mom. Then, moments later, I’d hear the bed springs squeaking. But other than that, the guy was as serene as an entombed mummy.

Days later, my father started showing me how to throw a correct punch, how to ball my scrawny little paws into tight fists. My mother was on the side, saying, “You better fight back!” and my father on the other side, “Fight ‘im, kid. Fight ‘im.”

I felt like a top contender, training for the fight of my life. But the truth is, I was scared to death! I was a placid, docile, squeamish kid. What did I know about fighting? All this talk made me nauseated. I knew I couldn’t lick Chubby. If I attempted such a feat it wouldnt have been swift suicide. Though we were the same age, Chubby was twice my size. He was a strong, paunchy kid. His mean black eyes burned through me like hot coals. He had a bad reputation. And this was who I had to fight!

I felt emboldened to ask my parents, “Now, wait just a minute! Can we at least talk about this?” But then the image of my mother dangling that snake— like strap flittered across my vision, and I thought better of it.

I couldn’t even talk to my little sister about this. Mom said she was too young to understand and so I kept my mouth shut. Still she observed that I was at the center of attention around the house. She found my silence peculiar. And that seemed to heighten her agony of not being privy to our secret war council. And now my little sister Dee—Dee was mad at me for breaking the pact that we’d never keep secrets from each other.

Sometimes a difficult sibling, she began to float around the house, pouting. She rolled her eyes at me, big poignant eyes that tortured, probed. Yet in all their sparkle and splendor they held a pleading look, begging me, begging to tell. Oh, how I wanted to! Yet, I just couldn’t. Dee—Dee would have poked her head out of the window and blurted out, “My daddy is teaching my big brother how to fight and the next time fat Chubby hit him, he gonna git all beat up!”

Dee would’ve said it just like that, all in one shrilly breath, in her cute, tiny voice that resonated with genuine admiration for me. Yeah, my loyal, sweet little sister. But it would not have been advantageous for me had the enemy been alerted of a surprise attack. My vigorous preparation for battle would manifest into a futile and aborted attempt in the scowling face of a counterattack.


Father kept telling me about “the element of surprise.” I didn’t hear him. My mind teetered between the gulf of reality and illusion. I was caught against the fierce tide of the tradewinds of decision and indecision. I didn’t know what. to do. Pent—up anger and confusion bubbled in my chest. The heavy weight of this burden bore down on my small, undeveloped shoulders.

I was really in a jam, with no one to talk to. No one. No use discussing my reluctance to fight with the brood of adults who couldn’t understand the inner gripping fears of a growing child. Yet I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I wanted to impress them.

Consciously and unconsciously, we live our lives wanting to impress our parents. We grow up hoping that we’ll fulfill the dream of reaching respectable positions in society that will make the hearts of our doting parents leap with ethereal joy. We wish for the winds of fate to be kind.


But in their insistence I know now that my parents were trying to tell me about the cruel lessons of this life, of giant hurdles to overcome, which then I could not understand. After all, this was 1962, and the saga of the struggles and travails of a young Negro boy had not been portrayed in the fine wooden frames of a Norman Rockwell painting. I still had my pride and it was ny inner pride that told me I could not let my parents down. I had to do it. t made my decision. This was the catharsis.

It was a balmy evening. From my third floor window, I sat solemnly marveling the fiery red eye of the sun sinking slowly, indolently behind the raggedy rooftops of a cluster of abandoned buildings in the far distance. The light was fading and overhead, a flock of wild pigeons wheeled majestically as they soared to their secret enclave. They gave a high throaty scream as they missiled their droppings, which splattered noisily against the tops of Mrs. Virginia’s tin window awnings. Now against the backdrop of a Prussian—blue sky, I could see the first faint light of the moon, reflecting off the cracked, dusty windowpanes of the teeming rowhouses, pulsating with the heartbeat of the entrenched underclass.

My short—lived reveries were burst when suddenly, the voice of my mother penetrated up through the cracks in the floorboards. She was telling me it was time. I bounded down the stairs and dressed wordlessly. No one talked. No one had to. Dreamily I walked out of the house and threw my body onto the top step, lying in wait. The street was buzzing with the normal excitement. And for some strange reason I could feel an air of expectancy emanating from the crowd.

Had they known? Had a rumor spread? And what if Chubby knew? If he had someone like his treacherous older brother might have given him a switchblade. no! I was paranoid, that’s all. Calm down, I told myself. Just then a cool gust of wind blew over my face and ruffled my hair. I could feel its tingling sensation. Its frosty coolness seemingly lulled my fears, sedated my being. If that was so, then why was I nervously peering over my shoulders, trying to discern a particular face amid this blurry sea of blackness?

The ice cream man arrived, parked at the curb. I got. in line and Durchased my ice cream, vanilla, almost two tiers high, with pecans and sweet :herries on top! Gleefully I started to devour it, but it now tasted suddenly sour because out of the edge of my eye, I saw Chubby waddling up to me, his shambling gait exuding power. On his face was that ever—present contemptuous smirk.

I stood up, feigning fright. Immediately he went for my ice cream as expected, but I was ready for him this time. I drew back my arm and before he knew it, mashed the entire cone into his blubbery face. Squih! He was taken aback, stunned, and I could see his eyes blinking stupidly through the avalanche of sweet white cream gliding down his face.

A cherry fell off his chin and knotty, woolly hair was matted with glistening pecans. I wasted no time. Before he could react I clenched my fist and let go a short, crushing right to the cleft of his chin. Then with blazing clarity, I followed up with a thunderous left hook that landed just behind his right ear.

He gave an inaudible Simian wheeze and grabbed the side of his face. I believe this was more of a reaction out of surprise rather than pain, because at that moment he looked at me as if to say, “Sucker, you punched me!”

I gave him a cool, defiant look that said, “Oh, yeah? Well, that’s good. Here’s another.” Wham! This blow stunned him and I could see he was really infuriated. I had cold—copped him. Yeah, me. Something no one had ever done. Not even hisfather. Never!

“Why you little chump” he snarled, “You must be crazy, ‘cause boy I’m gonna ke—e—e—l you!” He lashed out, with all big might and fury, and fired a wild roundhouse hook. Swish! It barrelled overhead. I ducked. The punch went whisking over my head with the slashing velocity of a straight razor. Zig! I could feel small light winds rippling across the cuticles at the nape of my neck. Cool.

I raised my head, much too soon, thus making a perilous, amateurish mistake. He rocked inc hard with a wicked overhand right. Barn! I was dazed, stumbling backwards, on rubbery legs. The boy hit like a bull! I saw stars, bright and dazzling, a floating rainbow and little dancing demons.

Chubby knew he’d hurt me. Through the dizzying mist I could see that triumphant smirk flashing giddily across his brown ugly face. I saw him reach back, and in slow motion I saw his magnified knuckles corning straight at me like a wrecking torpedo. I couldn’t get out of its way. My body seemed anchored down by some great paralyzing weight. It was almost as if I was in a dream. Then, suddenly, my mother’s voice exploded from somewhere inside of my head. You better fight back! You hear me, boy? Just one mo’ time . . . you want uh whuppin? And then I grimaced as that monstrous image of the leather strap came into sharp focus. The big black snake was hissing. Uh—uh, mama, naw, mama, I don’t want no whuppin’.

The torpedo was inches away. Now, picking up speed. Getting closer! I shook my head violently. The thick fuzz began to clear. I shook it harder, harder. Images spread lucidly before me. It was like magic! The world unfolded like the petals of a rose. The torpedo was upon the bridge of my nose when suddenly, miraculously, some invisible force pulled my string—beany body off to the side as I sidestepped the debilitating bomb. Chubby’s arm shot by. Zoom! The misdirected force threw his body against the door. He seemed astonished and amazed that he’d missed. For he turned calmly and unleashed a left. As he did this he was sneering, a confident gleam in his cold black eyes.

I pulled back and he missed again. The smirk vanished. He was chagrined. He was breathing heavily. Then, like a raging bull, he put his head down and came charging in, his arms swinging like a crazy maniac.

Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I eluded his wild fury, bobbing and weaving. But his barrage of punches was just a ruse to upset my leg balance, because at that moment he turned, feinted with his left, leaned back, and that overhand right came barrelling up over his shoulder and crashed onto the base of my skull. Boom!

The blow shook my world. But now I was beyond pain, impassive, and told myself I wouldn’t go down. Chubby only knew I would topple off the stairs and when I didn’t he looked at me incredulously, amazed, as if to say, “Boy, you must have eaten your Wheaties today.?? He shrugged and tried another. I went under. But this time, I came up with a stiff, bonecrushing left uppercut that burrowed deep into the loose rolls of flesh dangling over his belly.

“Oof!” He gave a great expulsion of hot breath and doubled over, holding his stomach. He was staggering around, with one arm stretched out in front of him, as if grappling for the support of some object that was