by Joe Roubicek
Don’t know why, but I never attended kindergarten. And so, I struggled from day one of first grade through the fifth when I was held back, and that was a blessing in disguise. I was finally able to get my bearings academically, no longer drawing the ire and wrath of the sisters of Saint Francis de Sales Elementary.
It was a tough school. The nuns slapped my face for looking at them the wrong way, and I could only imagine what they would have done in response to an eye roll or smirk. I had two uniforms per year, and my pants had iron-on patches over the knees because I rarely changed after school.
Passing at Saint Francis required a grade of at least 75, so when I found out that the public junior high school across the street had a passing grade of 65, I was jealous. The junior high only ran from sixth to ninth grade yet was four times the size of our school. I heard that rebellion was tolerated over there, and they didn’t have to wear uniforms. All the more reason for me to want public school, but Mom made it clear that wasn’t happening.
Normally I stayed away from the junior high, with one important exception—the Fight Club. Even the name was cool. One kid would call out another, word spread, and an after-school match would be planned in the open field behind their building. After school each day, I would walk to the deli across the street for candy and, if a crowd gathered behind the junior high, I joined them. I was shy and didn’t know many of the public school kids, but the fights were more like sporting events, and it felt good to be part of the crowd. In those days everyone was poor, some poorer than others, and I felt more comfortable with the latter.
The Fight Club became a popular event. Dozens of kids would show up to root for the opponents, while a few of the older kids—the “alpha males” among us—kept things organized. They would dictate when the fight began, though sometimes when it ended the winner was still pounding away on the loser coiled up on the ground.
Fighting was different back then, more about honor than revenge. Fights involved only fists and wrestling until a winner was on top and loser on the bottom. A bloody nose was cool and when both had bloody noses, even better.
One ominous day, I bought my candy at the deli and followed the public school boys to the field, but as I drew closer to the crowd already gathered, I realized they were looking back at me. All of them. It felt awkward in my Catholic school uniform with those patches on my knees until I heard a familiar voice yell, “Hey, Joe!”
A girl ran from the crowd, and I recognized “that” girl—the first one I had kissed by Swan River. Still can’t remember her name.
“You’re going to fight today!” She grabbed my arm and gave me a big smile as if I had just won something.
She explained another boy had been picking on her, so she told him that her boyfriend from the Catholic school would kick his ass.
“But I’m not your boyfriend,” I said.
“Just for now, pleeease?” She leaned against me.
Panic set in, as one of the alpha leaders called out for my opponent.
“He’s not here,” someone said. “Took the bus home, but said he’ll fight tomorrow.”
“Same time, same place tomorrow, folks,” the alpha leader said as the crowd whined and dispersed.
The girl leaned on me. “Don’t worry, Joey. You can beat him, he’s not that big.” She kissed me on the cheek and walked away.
My fear grew without mercy as I walked home. I had been in fights before and when I’d lose it wasn’t so bad. I’d feel sorry for myself and move on, but this was different. It was the crowd I feared, the possibility of total humiliation that could last forever. Home was a mile away, plenty of time to consider ways out of my predicament, but to no avail. Not showing up would make me a coward and surely disappoint my brothers.
That evening my imagination ran wild until bedtime. I pictured myself bloodied, pinned down to the ground by my opponent’s knees. He would be laughing as the crowd cheered, and that girl would be gazing down on me sadly. I would never kiss her again or show my face without shame at the Fight Club.
Desperate, I did something I had never done before. My brothers weren’t around, so I went to my mom, who had gone to bed early because she had to be up before dawn for work.
Standing in the hallway, just outside her open bedroom door, I couldn’t see her face because she liked to place a towel around her head to keep warm. I told her everything and asked her what I should do.
She was quiet for a while beneath all that cover, and then she told me to say my Hail Mary prayers so things would work out. This was not the answer I sought. My life was surrounded by religious dogma. We lived in a former convent purchased from the Sisters of Seton Hall. My mother’s first name was Mary, her maiden name was Grace, and I knew that all the “Hail Mary, full of grace” in the world would not lessen the blows of my opponent.
Retreating to my bedroom, I felt angry with Mom at first, but even at that young age I realized how tough her life really was—keeping a roof over our heads and food in the fridge. It became my predicament again, not hers, and I resolved to deal with it myself.
After school the next day, I walked straight past the deli and continued behind the junior high into the field where the crowd waited. I was still afraid but determined. Thoughts of humiliation gave way to facing the music and doing my best. The girl greeted me with more words of encouragement, which helped a little. As she walked me into the middle of the crowd, I realized she was the only girl around. That’s one of the things I liked about her; she was like one of the guys, except very pretty.
Time passed, and after fifteen minutes without my opponent appearing, someone shouted that he wasn’t coming. He had been seen taking the bus home. Relief washed over me as an alpha male leader patted me on the back saying, “Looks like you win, Joe.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
It was over that fast, too fast for all my worry.
The girl walked me home, leaning against my side from time to time, talking endlessly about what a jerk the other kid was. It occurred to me she was very manipulative, and I began to think she probably scared the hell out of my opponent. As for me, I just kissed her and look what happened.
That evening, when my mom got home from work, she didn’t ask me how things went. Perhaps I didn’t look any worse for the wear. Instead, she ate dinner at the kitchen table while reading a paperback, then watched television for an hour and went to bed.
My mom was all about survival—that’s what life was for her. Not the best message for a young person, but there was truth in it at the time.
As for the Hail Mary prayers, who knows? Maybe they worked. The alpha leader just said, “You win,” and I became a member of the Fight Club without swinging a fist.
A life lesson formed that day: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes what you fear never happens—and all that worry was for nothing.
Joe Roubicek is a retiree who spends quality time writing fiction and memoir with epiphanies. His downtime is spent diving coral reefs in South Florida and babysitting a grandson (with superpowers) in Nashville, Tennessee.