We were kept inside during morning recess, allowed only to walk down the hall to the supply room to buy milk and cookies, five boys at a time to limit any roughhousing. I had just returned to my seat, neatly stacked my ten vanilla wafers on top of my desk, and pried open the spout on my container of chocolate milk when Poochie strode through the door. He stopped in the aisle and looked down at me, cocked his head to one side, then hocked. A thick bubbling gob of phlegm shot out of his mouth and landed on my desk.
It wasn’t like Poochie had any particular beef with me, he did this kind of stuff to everybody. I don’t know, maybe it was his idea of fun. Anyway, I lunged at him, knocking the container of milk he was holding to the floor. It was pure reflex. The room fell silent.
“Down The Park,” he hissed.
That was code, a challenge to meet after school for a fight. Poochie loomed over me, hands on his hips, breathing heavily, his eyes narrowed to dark slits, his nostrils flaring. I looked toward the door but our teacher, Sister Mary Clair, was standing just outside monitoring the activity in the hallway. Finally, Poochie picked up his container of milk, examined it carefully, and then walked back to his seat.
The Park was a long narrow stretch of asphalt under the elevated train. You could see the tracks from our seventh grade classroom. It was spring, the air warm and sweet. With the windows open, you could hear the wheels of the GG train screech, metal on metal, as it curved down the steep embankment before plunging underground into the Carroll Street station.
The Park was enclosed by a sagging cyclone fence; scraps of faded newspaper would collect along its rusty bottom like seaweed in a fisherman’s net. We would gather there before school and during lunch break, playing fistball or shooting baskets in our white shirts and blue ties, tiny shards of broken beer bottles crunching under our feet. When our principal, Brother Dominic, blew his whistle we would hustle to form a double line, tucking our shirttails into the backs of our dark blue dress pants. When he blew the whistle a second time we would march up the street, Sister Mary Clair at the front of the line turning to walk backward to make sure we stayed in formation. The younger boys and all of the girls gathered in the schoolyard adjacent to the red-brick schoolhouse. The Park, half a block away, was the domain of the seventh and eighth grade boys.
Poochie was big and dark-skinned with bristly, curly hair. When we saw him in our neighborhood, he was usually by himself. He lived in the projects on the other side of the Gowanus Expressway with his mother. There were rumors that his father was dead or in prison. Most of our class had been together since first grade, but Poochie had just enrolled at St. Mary’s the previous fall. I was surprised to see him sitting in the corner of our classroom on the first day of school, his shirt collar looking uncomfortably tight even though the top button was open in violation of school rules, his tie askance and tied carelessly so that the front portion — much too long — curled in his lap.
The last time I had seen Poochie was in Carroll Park on a hot afternoon the previous summer. The kids from President Street had challenged our block to a softball game. We made uniforms, taking a thick black magic marker and writing our team name Gladiators diagonally in block letters across the front of our white T-shirts. We each chose a number to put on the back. Mine was 7 in honor of my favorite player, Ed Kranepool, the first baseman for the Mets.
We were in the top of the third, the score tied 3-3, when Poochie strode right across the asphalt infield toward home plate. He was at least a head taller than the rest of us, his thick arms bulging out of the sleeveless muscle shirt that stretched tightly over his chest.
“Lemme see the bat,” he said to a short, husky kid named Lenny who was set to lead off the inning for the President Street boys. I watched from third base as Lenny reluctantly handed the bat over and backed away. Poochie stepped into a wide stance and took three hard, smooth practice swings. Our pitcher was Carmine Lanzone, a tall gangly kid with thick black-rimmed glasses and an oversized nose. Carmine stood with his arms folded defiantly, the ball in his glove tucked under his left armpit.
“C’mon Pooch, we’re playin’ a game,” he whined.
“Just one swing. I want to see if I can put one.” Poochie gestured toward the bocce courts, beyond where our centerfielder Frankie Rizzo stood, his jaw working a wad of Bazooka bubble gum.
Poochie spoke with the confidence of someone accustomed to getting his way. Carmine unfolded his arms and put his hands in front of him like the big league pitchers did on television. He took his windup, swung his arm forward and let the pitch fly underhand toward the plate. The ball exploded off Poochie’s bat. Frankie drifted back a couple of steps then gave up as it soared over his head in a majestic arc, crashing on one short hop against the low fence that protected the bocce court. Poochie slammed the bat down on the ground, strutted toward first base then into the outfield and out of the park. Lenny hurried to retrieve the bat, caressing the knob where a sliver had chipped off .
My mind wandered the rest of the morning as Sister Mary Clair diagrammed sentences and solved equations on the blackboard. I could feel Poochie staring at the back of my head. We all lived within a few blocks of the school and, since there was no cafeteria, we all walked home for lunch. When Sister marched us up to the corner to dismiss us, I looked back to make sure that Poochie was well behind me, then peeled off quickly down Court Street toward my house. Carmine caught up and loped along beside me in his awkward way.
“So you’re not gonna to fight him, are you?”
“What else am I supposed to do?” I replied. Only a coward would fail to show if challenged to meet down The Park.
“If you were smart, you’d just lay low and stay out of his way.”
Carmine was right, of course. My only career fight had been with one of the President Street boys, a wiry redheaded kid named Pete. It had ended badly with me on the ground and Pete straddling my chest, digging his long filthy fingernails into my neck and drawing blood. As luck would have it, my Aunt Rita happened to walk by just then on her way to the store. She stepped in to break it up and then took me back to her apartment. She washed my neck with a warm washcloth, then dabbed it dry with a soft towel and dusted on some talcum powder.
“You’re not going to tell Mom are you?”
She kissed me on the forehead and smiled. “Go,” she said. “And don’t go getting in no more trouble.”
Poochie was bigger and stronger and no doubt tougher than Pete. It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if I didn’t show up. I had always been shy and a little scrawny. I was smart too. Everybody assumed, at least in this neighborhood, that if you were a brain you couldn’t play ball and you certainly couldn’t hold your own in a fight. Carmine was a brain and seemed proud of the fact, but I had begun to think of myself differently. I had grown five inches over the winter, had abandoned my crew cut and let my hair grow out long. I had begun to notice girls, but they only seemed interested in the louder, cooler, tougher guys. Maybe taking on Poochie would help change my image.
Well? Are you gonna fight him or not?” Carmine persisted.
“I don’t know.”
“Where is it written that you have to do this?”
“It isn’t written anywhere.”
“Mary, Mother of God! You’re actually thinking of going through with this? I’m not gonna let you do it, Tony.”
“And what are you gonna do about it?”
He stopped in front of my gate. “I’m going to ring your bell and tell your mother.”
“Don’t. Just … don’t.”
“Okay, suit yourself.” He walked away, waving his arms and talking to himself.
I could barely choke down half of the sandwich my mother put in front of me. Art Fleming was on the television, cordially firing questions at the three contestants who sat behind their lecterns on the set of Jeopardy. I watched the show every day, trying to answer as many questions as I could, but it was impossible to concentrate.
“Something the matter?” my mother asked.
“No.” I kept my eyes riveted to the screen.
“You hardly ate.”
“I guess my belly hurts a little.”
She touched her palm to my forehead. “You feel cool.” Then she looked at the clock. “Isn’t it time?” I had been planning to wait until the last possible minute to leave, so that I would arrive back at The Park just as the whistle blew.
“Let me go to the bathroom first.”
I sat on the toilet with the lid down, fully clothed. After a few minutes, I heard my mother pacing in the hallway. I flushed the toilet and rushed out the door.
It was even harder to concentrate after lunch as Sister Mary Clair droned on about the Middle Ages. Finally, my curiosity overtook my fear and better judgment and I glanced over my shoulder. Poochie was staring at me. “Down. The. Park.” He mouthed the words slowly, silently. It was clear to me now that I had no choice.
Frankie and Carmine walked me down to The Park after school, one on either side of me like handlers escorting a boxer into the ring at Madison Square Garden.
“He’s gonna get his ass kicked,” Carmine said to Frankie as if I wasn’t there. “It won’t be on my conscience though. I told him he should go home and lay low.”
“What good would that do? Poochie’ll just kick his ass next time he sees him anyway. In the meantime, everybody’ll just think he’s a pussy.”
“I don’t like this. I don’t like it one bit,” Carmine said. “I got a bad feeling.”
“So he gets his ass kicked, then that’s that. It’s over and at least he didn’t act like a little pussy. Just keep moving Tony. If it gets bad, we’ll come in and break it up.”
“Not me. I ain’t gettin’ involved. And have Poochie pissed at me? No, sir!”
“It’ll be all right, Tony. Just get it over with.”
Poochie had just taken off his white shirt and tie and was handing them to Philly Pearson. Philly was an eighth grader. He had two fingers missing from his left hand, the result of a Fourth of July accident when he had held on to a cherry bomb too long. He and Poochie were always the ones who chose up sides for fistball games before school and after lunch. Everyone would gather around while the two of them took turns choosing the best players, sending the rest of us away when they had enough. I had only been picked a couple of times, when attendance was light.
“Look, he showed up,” Philly said.
“Yeah, too bad for him,” Poochie responded. About a dozen kids were standing behind him in an arc, smiling hawkishly.
I stopped about ten feet away from him, Carmine and Frankie lingering a few steps behind. Poochie flexed his biceps, rubbed his right fist with his left hand, then began moving slowly toward me, still rubbing his fist, his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. I raised my hands in front of me and began moving to my left. Poochie matched me step for step, the two of us rotating almost a full circle. He feinted suddenly, stepping forward into a boxer’s stance then back again. I flinched and jumped back a step.
“Whatsa matter? You ascared?” Then he dropped his hands and stuck out his chin. “C’mon, I’ll give you the first shot.”
“Don’t do it,” Carmine shouted. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
Everyone laughed. Frankie pushed me from behind, nudging me forward. Beads of sweat boiled on Poochie’s upper lip, a ring of black crust was caked in the folds of skin on his neck. He snarled and feinted again but this time, instead of jumping back, I jabbed my right fist out and struck a glancing blow on his left cheek just above the jaw.
“Attaboy, Tony,” Frankie yelled.
“So you wanna fight, huh?” Poochie spit on the ground and started to circle again. He tried another stutter-step, but this time, to my amazement, I lunged forward and caught him with a clean shot square on his mouth.
“Oh, mah-dohn!” someone whispered.
“You like to hit in the mouth, huh? I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass.”
Poochie’s voice didn’t sound so sure anymore. He rubbed his forearm across his face. I thought I saw a trickle of blood on his lower lip. A delicious pulse of electricity rippled through me. It was like nothing I had ever felt before and it was intoxicating. He swung wildly with his left fist, a haymaker with such a long windup that I easily stepped to the side to avoid it. I tried another right, but he saw it coming this time and jumped back in the direction of the crowd.
“C’mon, you gonna take that?” Philly barked, pushing him back in my direction.
Three short bursts from a whistle pierced the air. Poochie dropped his hands and instinctively started moving toward the other end of the park. He glared at me over his shoulder. The other kids scattered too. Me and Carmine and Frankie weren’t as quick. Brother Dominic rushed toward us, the white rope on his long brown Franciscan habit swinging from his side. His small round face and bald head were flushed; a pipe was clenched tightly between his teeth. He barely stopped before slapping each of us hard on the side of the face. My ear started ringing and the whole side of my face went numb. I didn’t dare look at Carmine or Frankie, but I could hear Carmine suck in huge gulps of air and whimper.
“Now. Who wants to tell me what was going on down here?”
Frankie jumped in. “Poochie spit on his desk, Brother. When Tony got pissed off …” He caught himself in mid-sentence, a beat too late. Brother Dominic planted the whistle back in his mouth and blew it fiercely in Frankie’s ear, his eyes bulging, his cheeks bellowing, his face turning an even deeper shade of crimson.
“Sorry, Brother,” Frankie mumbled.
“Go on, Francis. But this time dispense with the profanity.”
Well, Poochie got mad naturally.”
“And he told Tony to meet him down The Park.”
“For a fistfight?”
“And Anthony, of course, had to accept?”
“Well, yeah,” Frankie answered, not picking up on the rhetorical nature of the question.
“Mm-hmm. I see. Anthony, do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“No, Brother,” I responded.
“You realize, of course, that a fistfight on school grounds is a serious matter?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“You will report to my office for detention after school tomorrow and for the next week. Francis, you will be joining him. The use of foul language will not be tolerated. And I will be talking to both your parents tonight. As for you Mr. Lanzone, you’ve been uncharacteristically silent. Do you have anything to add?”
“No, sir,” Carmine answered indignantly. “I told Tony not to fight.”
“Yes, I’m sure you did. Now all of you, get out of my sight.”
We gathered our books and hustled out of the schoolyard. We didn’t look at each other or say a word until we were almost two blocks away.
“Did you see Poochie’s face when you clocked him in the puss?” Frankie said at last. His voice was a raspy whisper, as if Brother Dominic might still be able to hear us. “Boom,” he said, swinging his fist in front of him.
“He’s lucky Brother Dominic showed up,” Carmine said.
“C’mon, did you see how Philly Pearson had to push Poochie back at him? I tell you, he was ascared. You could have taken him, Tony.”
“So what are you going to do the next time you see him?” Carmine said. “You think he’s going to forget about this? I don’t think so.”
The phone rang shortly after dinner. I turned down my radio and listened from my bedroom. My mother’s voice stiffened, her words coming haltingly, artificially formal and polite.
“Yes, Brother. Good evening.”
“No, no. Anthony didn’t tell me anything.”
“Oh, my. Who with?”
“Was the boy hurt?”
“I’m so sorry. His father will have a good talking to him. Tonight, for sure. This won’t happen again, I can tell you that.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
A few minutes later, my parents appeared side by side at the doorway to my room, their arms folded across their chests.
“What’s this I hear about you fighting with another boy?” my mother asked. Her voice was brittle, shrill. She moved toward me with wide, wild eyes. “You embarrass me and your father like that? Acting like a little ruffian so Brother Dominic has to call us at home? And you don’t tell us nothing about it?” I cringed as she slapped me on the top of my head. “Don’t you ever do this to me again.”
My father stood silently in the doorway as she walked past him. “Don’t disappoint your mother like that,” he said at last, but I thought I saw a trace of a smile on his lips.
I flopped back on my bed, staring at the patterns in the tin ceiling, replaying the fight in my mind. It unspooled in slow motion: my fist connecting with Poochie’s mouth, the look of surprise as he stumbled backward, the gasps from the crowd, Frankie’s raspy voice afterward: “Did you see Poochie’s face?”
I really did have him back on his heels, surely everybody could see that. I was the first guy in the neighborhood who ever stood up to Poochie. I was proud of myself, surprised too. I found myself wondering if maybe I could have taken him if Brother Dominic hadn’t shown up.
Those thoughts had all faded by midnight. There were noises out in the street — a truck backfiring, a stray dog baying, footsteps on the sidewalk. A breeze kicked up, a rush of cool air rolling in through the open window. I shivered on my sweat-soaked sheets, wondering what would happen when I walked into the schoolyard in the morning. Everything went quiet all of a sudden and all I could hear was Carmine’s voice ringing in my ears: “You think he’s going to forget this? I don’t think so.”
Featured image: Kamil Zajaczkowski / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now