Back in 1971, there were no African-Americans, and a lot of decent white folks were still referring to people like Michael Jackson—both the singer and the kid who hit me in the face—as colored people. One of my uncles, however, was not so enlightened. During the long days when I was in the South for my grandfather's funeral, that uncle would look at my cut and swollen lip and shake his head. Once he caught me outside and away from the women when he ventured forth to smoke his Tarreytons, so he came right out and asked me, "Why did you let a little nigger hit you like that?"
I cringed when he spoke, but not because I was ashamed of getting hit. The mere sound of the "n" word made me wince, and it still does because my parents were good southern folk, even if they did move up north, and they didn't use that word. "People are people," my mother would always say, and I grew up believing that. She was merely parroting my grandmother, who stayed in the South and was rather progressive-minded for a woman of her generation. Of course, when I was older and suggested to Granny that Moses had a black woman for a wife, she resisted the notion. Then she grew adamant when I told her I would marry a black woman if God wanted me to. She was convinced that God made us all different for a reason, and that people should "marry their own kind." I, on the other hand, wasn't exactly sure why God made us different, and whatever His reasons, I considered them no big deal, so getting into a fight with Michael Jackson had nothing to do with him being black. In fact, it actually had very little to do with Michael Jackson.
The whole thing started at the end of gym class when Coach Monty had us seventh grade boys line up and sit down on the hardwood floor. He always forced us to go from the chaos and exhilaration of basketball, dodge ball, or whatever ball was the order of the day, to sitting down in silent rows in just a matter of seconds. We were supposed to get completely quiet and stare up at one of the two Indian heads painted on both sides of the stage in the combination gym/auditorium. Our junior high basketball team was the fighting Navajos, which I later found out were generally regarded as a rather peaceful tribe, but at the end of gym classes Coach Monty wanted to us to sit down, look at that stylized representation of a Native American, and consider what our school meant to us. I never understood what that was supposed to mean, and, of course, we always took longer than he expected to find our places and settle down. He usually wound up blowing his whistle and yelling until we all were appropriately quiet.
On that day, my row was among the last to be dismissed. Michael Jackson was partially to blame. He sat behind me and, whether it was by chance or by his own intention, his foot wound up resting against the small of my back.
"Would you mind moving your foot?" I said, my tone somewhere between a real question and a command, trying to sound authoritative and manly, which was a real trick for a seventh-grade boy.
Michael drew his leg back, but another voice behind him said, "You gonna let him tell you what to do?" It was Tommy Elliot, a rat-faced boy whose father was rumored to be in jail.
Tommy's statement must have been manlier than mine because Michael's sneaker reconnected with my body, just below my right kidney.
"Move your foot," I told him
Michael's foot stayed right where it was.
"Maybe you didn't hear me," I said. "Move your foot, okay?"
Just then Coach Monty looked our way. His teacher's radar told him something was wrong on my side of the room, but as he scanned our faces, all now looking up at the Navajo, he could not discern the source of the offending noise. He turned the other way and dismissed an obviously quiet row of kids on the other side of the gym.
"Mikey didn't do what what you told him to do," rat-faced Tommy whispered.
"Don't call me Mikey," Michael said.
"All right, Michael," Tommy said in a sing-songy whisper before redirecting his attention to me. "He still hasn't moved his foot."
"I realize that, so shut up," I said.
Michael's Chuck Taylor high top still was pressed against me.
"Michael, move your damn foot," I said, using his correct name so as not to offend him, yet cursing in order to preserve my supposed manliness.
Michael did not move.
"What're you gonna do about him not moving his foot?" Tommy said. "I know you won't fight."
"You don't know squat," I said.
"They're gonna fight," Tommy said, loud enough for the boys in the next row to hear and start murmuring.
Coach Monty blew his whistle and sentenced those boys to be last to leave.
The pressure against my back lessened, but Michael was merely shifting his weight from one cheek to the next, trying to get comfortable. I then realized I really did not want to fight Michael Jackson. For one, putting his foot against my back wasn't such a big deal. More importantly, I was afraid that he would humiliate me in the most painful sort of way if we actually got down to fighting.
Finally, Coach Monty dismissed our row, followed immediately by the very last group. As we left the room, voices rose up around me. Tommy was chatting up the potential fight between Michael and me. Others joined into the fray.
"He said he was going to fight."
"No, he won't. He's too much of a wimp."
"Jackson will kick his ass."
Michael said nothing, but I assumed that Michael could, indeed, kick my ass, and now I was truly afraid. As we entered our portion of the locker room, a separate U-shaped area with a bench in the middle, I turned to face those voices.
Michael was now right in front of me. "We gonna fight?"
I said nothing.
"Yeah, out back, after school," Bob Jameson suggested. "Do it there." A skinny white kid with greasy blond hair and malicious acne, he was actually grinding his fist in his hand, lusting for a fight.
I had seen some fights "out back." There was a grassless space beside a wall without windows where no teacher could see even dozens of students gathering for a brawl. A few weeks earlier, a crowd had formed, and I was among the spectators and instigators. A ninth grader I only knew by the last name of Atkins bloodied another boy's face and knocked him down twice. When the boy would not get back up, Atkins kicked him hard in the ribs and left that boy lying in the dirt among the discarded cigarettes and gum wrappers. He didn't move until somebody rolled him over, and we saw him gasping for breath, bloody and crying in agony. A boy could get almost killed out back, I assumed, before teachers finally intervened.
For the first time in my life, I actually saw the locker room as a good place, a haven of safety. "I'm not fighting after school," I said.
"Told you he was a wimp," someone sneered.
I looked away from Michael, stared down my accusers, and said, "If we fight, we fight right here, right now." I did not say anything to Michael, but I could feel him standing behind me.
Someone touched me on my shoulder. When I turned and saw it was Bob Jameson, Michael was to my side. I could see him at the edge of my peripheral vision as I looked Bob in the eye. Nervous and fluttery all over, my body electrified with terror, I wanted to run, but couldn't. I was cornered and had to do something.
"Don't fight here," Bob said. "Monty will get you suspended."
"I know," I told him as spun around, "but I don't care."
Before even finishing the sentence, I managed to land a right on Michael's head. He backpedaled and was nearly against the lockers when I swung hard, hitting him squarely on the other side of his head. He countered with a wild strike that I ducked. As I came back up, I hit him in the chest. He swung again, pounding my shoulder. The sudden explosion of pain drove me insane with fear. I started swinging like a man possessed, hitting Michael again and again in the head, forcing him to retreat, but there was nowhere to go. He stood up straight, his back tight against the lockers. I grabbed him by the throat with my left hand and pounded his skull repeatedly with my right. He made desperate gurgling noises and flailed his arms until his fist somehow slipped out and connected full force with my mouth. Now, I was the one retreating, and there was the taste of blood in my mouth.
Michael recovered his composure and was about to lash out at me again when someone yelled, "Monty's coming!"
I grabbed a towel and pressed it against my lip. Michael went straight to his locker, and I went to mine. Coach Monty appeared and quickly looked over the room. "Get in the showers and get out of here. I'm not signing any notes for you guys being late." That was all he said before he was gone.
For a moment, no one spoke. Michael and I turned and faced each other.
"Are we finished?" Michael asked. Despite my many punches, he looked essentially unhurt.
"We're finished," I said, and that ended our fight.
I skipped the shower that day and managed to stop most of the bleeding with my towel before the bell rang for us to leave for class. On the way, I stopped by the bathroom for a wad of toilet tissue, just to keep the blood at bay. During the first part of Mrs. Goldbloom's math lesson, I kept dabbing away at my mouth, trying to keep my hand over my face, just so she couldn't tell what I was doing.
I was only there for a little while before the secretary's voice interrupted on the intercom, requesting that I go to the office. No doubt, the principal knew about the fight, so I prepared myself for whatever punishment I was about to receive. To my surprise, none came.
The secretary was behind the long counter at the front of the office when I came through the door. "Your father called and told us to send you home right away."
"What's going on?" I asked.
"He didn't say," she replied. Her brow furrowed, and she added, "What happened to your lip?"
"I was hit with a basketball in gym," I told her.
When I got home, my father told me that my mother's father had died, which rendered my fight and injured lip nearly insignificant. I missed several days of school because my grandfather's funeral was three states away, and when I returned Bob Jameson told me that Michael had been suspended for fighting.
"I guess they'll be calling me down soon, just so they can suspend me," I said.
"It wasn't for that fight that he got suspended," Bobby said. "The next day, he pounded the snot out of Tommy Elliot."
"What did he do that for?"
"Well, I didn't see it, but I know Michael was looking kind of bruised up from you guys' fight. The way I heard it, Tommy was saying something about it to a bunch of girls in Mrs. Gleason's room when Michael just walked over and started beating the hell out of him, right there in class."
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," I said.
"Yeah, Elliot's an ass. I hated to see Michael get in trouble for it, because he was doing us all a favor, beating up a twit like that."
"That boy always did get on my nerves," I said.
"By the way," Bobby asked, "why were you and Jackson fighting?"
"He put his foot on my back while we were lining up for Monty," I said.
I can't remember what I said after that, but once I was finished with all my words, the whole incident seemed ridiculous to me. The fight was never mentioned after that, and Coach Monty rearranged our groups so Michael no longer sat on the floor behind me. Now that I'm older, I can't help wondering if the coach really did know about our fight, but downplayed it. He always struck me as one of those jock types who considered a fight as just a game, part of being a boy or even a man.
After seventh grade, I never had a class with Michael and rarely saw him. In high school, he was in some type of vocational program, and I was simply taking up space in supposedly academic courses, so I only spoke to him once. It was one of those rare days when I stayed late at school, and as I walked out front, Michael was leaning against a Bus Loading Zone sign.
When I had to walk right past him, he said, "Hey, man, what's happening?" It was a common expression in those days, but he sounded friendly, like maybe he really did want to know what was happening, so I stopped.
"I'm getting out later than usual, that's for sure," I said.
"You in trouble?" Michael asked.
"Not much. Miss Day just gave me a detention, that's all. I came late for a few too many classes. I'd rather hang with my girlfriend than go to English."
"I don't blame you. Ladies is always finer than English."
"Most things aren't as fine as women."
"You're right about that, but you told me you weren't in trouble, and here you are letting a woman get you in some heat. The women are all gonna get us, one way or another."
"You got that right," I said.
Michael took a pack of Kools out of his coat pocket and offered me one.
Because it seemed like the right thing to do, I took his Kool even though I had my own cigarettes in the pocket of my army jacket. Back then, a lot of us wore army jackets, and nobody cared if high school students smoked, as long as we didn't do it in the building, so Michael and I lit up without any fear.
"What are you doing here so late?" I asked.
"I played a little basketball in the gym. Now I'm waiting for a ride home."
"I'd offer you one, but I only live a few blocks away, so I don't drive."
"I either have to drive or take the damn bus," Michael said. "I drive here most of the time, but my ride's down right now."
"My folks let me drive their car pretty much whenever I need it," I told him, "but they don't see the need for me to take a car to school."
"My momma don't even have a car," Michael said. "My brother and I had to work so we could buy our own. That's who I'm waiting for. My brother Steve's got himself one bad ride. Mine's nothing but four wheels and a seat, but it gets me there, at least most of the time."
I laughed with Michael, and we had nearly finished our Kools when a black Monte Carlo with chrome wheels drove up.
"That's a pretty darn cool car," I told Michael.
"You got that right," he said. He tossed his cigarette away and said, "Later, man."
"Later," I said. As Michael rode off, I tossed away the Kool he'd given me and watched the Monte Carlo cruise down the driveway and make a right turn into traffic. Then, I took a Marlboro from my own pack, lit it, and walked home in the opposite direction.
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