I had turned away from both of them, not wanting to watch as the two of them traded blows. There is a unique sound made when a balled up fist strikes someone's face. You can almost judge the severity of the damage inflicted just by hearing that sound. Without turning around to see, I knew that the fight was suddenly over. I had also heard the slight click that teeth make when they are suddenly forced into contact with each other. That was immediately followed by the soft moan that takes place as air is suddenly expelled from an unconscious person's mouth. The last sound I paid attention to was the one a body makes as it strikes soft ground with all the force of accumulated gravity. I didn't want to know who was the victor, and who the vanquished. Close family members should never fight with each other, that is what I'd had drilled into me by my father ever since I was old enough to know what fighting meant. Now that I was older, I understood that this rule was more often honored in the breach than in compliance.
My cousins, Billy and Donald, had just performed yet another breach. Billy was fifteen years old and just coming into his own physically. He'd never be tall, but his latest, and final, growth spurt had raised him above five foot nine, and he had finished being a welterweight, moving up to middleweight, at around one hundred fifty eight pounds. Donald, like his father, my Uncle Donald, was more than six feet tall and weighed every bit of two hundred pounds. He was eighteen years old and had just gotten home on a leave from the Army. He had completed basic training and would soon be enroute to Illinois for some technical schooling in electronics. I was only twelve years old myself, and I knew that there would soon be hard feelings surfacing as a result of what had just occurred in the woods behind the houses where we all lived.
Margaret Tracy, Billy's sometimes girlfriend, was the bone of contention that the two cousins were fighting over. Cousin Donald held the belief that, since he was older and bigger than Billy, he had an unquestioned right to make a play for her affections. Margaret was of a similarly held belief, and had done less than nothing to discourage Donald's interest. Even though Margaret was only fifteen herself, she was physically well developed, and wise beyond her years in the art of attracting and holding male attention. Billy's position was also quite clear, Margaret was his property, and he'd protect what was his from all comers.
Donald was completely familiar with Billy's oft stated position, he just didn't believe that Billy would be foolish enough to try to enforce it against him. Army basic training had made him stronger and tougher than he'd been when he had joined up. Billy would have to be insane to try to pit himself against Donald. Unfortunately for Donald, Billy never paid attention to things like age, size and training. He had one speed, all out, and one simple fight plan too. He'd try to hit you until you were no longer standing or else he was no longer able to lift his arms to throw a blow.
It was an effective plan, and in this case, as in most others where he was involved, it led him to success. After Billy passed by me en route to having a little talk with Margaret, I turned around and headed right back into the woods. Cousin Donald was just coming to when I got back to where he lay.
"Jackie, what the hell did he hit me with?"
"Just his fist, Donnie. One punch was all I heard before you came crashing to the ground. Billy is tough isn't he?"
"Jesus, I'd say so! My jaw is already aching and I can feel a couple teeth are knocked loose. I guess I better look elsewhere for a little gash while I'm home on leave."
"I'd stay away from Margaret if I was you. She'll try to keep you interested just because she likes seeing Billy getting upset."
"You think she knew it was going to turn out like this? With Billy whipping me?"
"I don't think she much cared Donnie. She and him are always fighting, and then making up right after. You aren't the first one that's tried taking her away from him."
Donald got up and walked out of the woods, with me following close behind him. I was only a couple of inches shorter than him, but I weighed one hundred pounds less. My father used to tell me to stay indoors if a strong wind was blowing outside. He pretended to be scared that I'd get blown away because of how skinny I was. I walked Donald over to his house and then walked home to see if there was anything to eat for lunch. We ate everyday at my house, but we sometimes skipped a meal if our money was too tight. There were six mouths to feed in our house, and my father's always came first. That wasn't his idea, it was my mother's firm rule. We needed to keep him strong and healthy, if we had any hope of surviving ourselves. We didn't miss very many meals though, and there was always bread and margarine if you got too hungry. There was jelly too, but that was usually saved to be put on the buttered toast my father ate every morning.
As soon as Uncle Donald got home from work, he found out about the fight, and about Donnie getting his ass handed to him on a silver platter. The whole street could hear Uncle Donald yelling at Donnie, demanding to know how he could accept getting whipped by a little boy. Fifteen minutes after the yelling started, Uncle Donald and Donnie came back out of their front door. Uncle Donald was still shouting, but he was also dragging Donnie along with him towards my Uncle Bill's house. Donnie wasn't happy at this turn of events, let me assure you. I was leaning against our porch railing watching the whole spectacle unfold.
My father picked that exact moment to come driving up in his old 1937 Pontiac, the one with it's own rumble seat in the back where the trunk usually would be... There was also a one square foot hole in the rear floorboard, caused by weather rust, and all of us kids used to spit down it when we were going somewhere with our parents. I turned and watched my father get out of the car. He was in his dress blue uniform, with all the red stripes on his sleeve with the rating and hashmarks denoting his years of service. If you hadn't ever gotten in trouble, during your Navy career, the hashmarks were gold, not red. None of my father's friends had, or wanted, gold hashmarks. He always looked good in his dress uniform, and got lots of looks from the women in our neighborhood.
Just as my father was getting to our porch, Uncle Donald starts banging on Uncle Bill's front door. "What's going on Yutch? Am I missing something?"
"Billy knocked out Donnie with one punch and Uncle Donald is mad about something."
"One punch? Are you sure he was knocked out and not just stunned a little?"
"I walked back in the woods where he was laying, and it was a couple minutes at least from when he got hit. He was just waking up when I bent down to check on him."
"Doesn't that just beat all? Fifteen years old and knocking a full grown man out already. Reminds me of me when I was his age. What's for supper? I don't smell anything cooking."
"Ma's over at Aunt Margaret's right now, and they're boiling some lobsters that "Tood" traded mom and Aunt Margaret for." He rapped me lightly across the top of my head. "I meant Mrs.Gates, pop, sorry."
"What did she trade for this time?" While we're talking back and forth about supper and trading, fifty feet away from us, my Uncle Bill is telling my Uncle Donald to get off of his porch. He's telling him nice, but, at the same time, he's blocking the way, and preventing Uncle Donald from going inside his house. That was when Aunt Margaret and my mother, two of Uncle Donald's sisters, came to the front door and got themselves involved in the discussion.
Seeing my mother, my father stepped off of our porch and started walking towards all of them. "Hello Donald, Bill, what's going on here?" My father loved to foment trouble, especially among all of his Murphy in laws. He and my Uncle Donald had a long history of conflict and mutual dislike. Actually it was more like two stags vying for dominance over the herd.
"That little shitass Billy, sucker punched my Donnie, and now Bill won't let me in to see him to find out what the hell he thinks he was doing." Donnie turned around and looked right at me. He looked nervous and pretty unhappy to find himself caught up right in the middle of it all.
"Bill, if I was you, I'd let Donald see Billy and we can get to the bottom of all this and maybe finally be able to put on the feed bags. Don't worry about anything bad happening to Billy. I'm sure Donald only wants to ask him a few questions. Right Donald?" My father gave my mother some kind of a signal with his head and she went back inside to go find Billy. Aunt Margaret stayed right where she was standing. In less than a minute Billy comes to the front door and pushed his father aside enough that he can squeeze through so that he is standing directly in front of Uncle Donald.
"You want to see me?" Billy was half a foot shorter than Uncle Donald, and was outweighed by at least seventy pounds. In addition, everyone in the family knew that Uncle Donald and my father had tangled on a couple occasions, without there being any clear winner. Uncle Donald was the toughest Murphy of them all. He had four living brothers who'd all attest to that, as well as any number of people over the years who thought they could back him down from a position that he held or espoused.
"What the hell do you mean by punching Donnie when he wasn't looking? You think you're a Jap or something?"
"I didn't do that, and he's full of shit if he says that I did. Right Jackie, you saw it?" Everyone turned then and looked at me. I wasn't happy myself now to be thrown in the middle.
"Billy, I was turned away when you two started in. Before I turned though, I heard you tell Donnie to keep his ass away from Margaret. You were both looking at each other when you said it. It was right after that when Donnie asked you to make him, but I'd turned away by then."
"Well then, if you claim it was a fair fight Billy, would you have any objections to having a rematch so we can all see if you fight fair this time?"
"You mean against you or just Donnie?" Billy knew damn well what Uncle Donald meant. He was just showing off for the rest of us.
"Who would you rather face, Donnie or me?" We all got quiet waiting to hear Billy's answer. I watched my father's back muscles tighten and bunch up. I sure hoped Billy didn't let his mouth overload his ass with his next reply.
"As long as you stay away from my girlfriend, I guess Donnie." Billy and Uncle Donald just stared at each other. Billy was skating right alongside a dangerous edge and we all were aware of it.
"Donnie why don't you come over here and wipe that damn grin off of your cousin's puss?" Uncle Donald stepped back and down off of the porch and gave Billy room to come down as well. My father grabbed Donnie by the arm and stopped him from advancing before Billy came down all the way into the yard. Uncle Donald didn't much care for that and told my father to let Donnie go. My father waited until Billy was down on level ground before he released Donnie's arm. He and Uncle Donald just stared at one another with about ten or twelve feet separating them. My mother called out my father's name, obviously not wanting her husband and her brother to get into it again.
"How's my supper doing Mary Kathryn? I hope you remembered to take the pot off the stove." Billy and Donnie were circling each other for a while before Donnie made a dive at Billy's legs. I guess he was hopeful that wrestling might give him a better chance of victory than boxing would. Billy stepped aside and planted a glancing blow on the back of Donnie's head. Donnie managed to get a one handed hold on Billy's leg, but Billy twisted away and was free. Donnie got back on his feet and started coming at Billy again. This time, instead of circling him some more, Billy walked straight in and landed two quick punches to Donnie's breadbasket, before stepping back away. They were hard punches, but not crippling blows by any means. Billy was back circling around Donnie again. Uncle Donald wasn't pleased with Donnie's effort, and was letting him and the rest of us know that he expected a lot more from him. "Billy, finish this damn thing won't you? I'm hungry and I want to eat something soon." There were few things my father enjoyed more than tweaking my uncle's nose.
Uncle Donald was glaring at my father, but not for very long. Billy unloaded five or six quick punches that, taken together, dropped Donnie down to his knees. Before Billy could finish Donnie off, my father stepped in and grabbed Billy, tying up both of his arms, and lifted him up and off of his feet, carrying him away from Donnie. "That's enough Billy. It's over now. Just relax and let it go." My father was trying to calm Billy down, hoping to get through to Billy and bring him back to an awareness of his surroundings. I looked over at Uncle Donald, and he was trying to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. He decided to go over to Donnie and help him to his feet and start him back in the direction of their house.
"You did good against him Billy, but I think you're going to have to be taught a lesson in manners pretty soon. When you talk to me in the future, I'd advise you to keep in mind who you're speaking with, because I won't take anymore lip or smart talk off of you." Uncle Donald turned away and walked slowly towards Donnie and his house. Uncle Bill looked relieved that a real crisis had been averted, and said something to my father, quietly, so that only the two of them ever knew what it was. Fifteen minutes later my mother was serving my father broiled stuffed lobster tail with baked potato and corn on the cob. The rest of us had fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and corn on the cob. We all knew better than to complain. When we were all done eating, my mother picked at the leftovers that remained.
"What did you have to trade for the lobster, Sweetie?" Now that my mother had cleaned up the mess and gotten my two sisters busy doing the dishes, she was free to answer my father's questions.
"Just twenty pounds of potatoes and a dozen ears of corn. Margaret and I got the potatoes and corn from Doris Cromwell, for nothing, when she came over visiting this morning." Doris was an aunt to my Aunt Margaret and my mother. She was my grandfather's youngest sister, and had married pretty well by our family's standards. She often came by with gifts of food and clothing for her nieces and nephews. She and my father didn't get along well at all, so she timed her visits for when he wouldn't be around. He pretended not to notice that she disliked him. "How was the lobster? Was it cooked okay?"
"Couldn't have been any better if I'd gone to the Lobster House and had them cook it. How come you didn't have any for yourself? I always thought you loved lobster?" He knew that she'd only had the one lobster. This wasn't anything more than going through the accepted rituals between them.
"Margaret and I used the rest of the parts and made ourselves a big lobster salad. We were hungry, so we just ate it all between us. I was going to save some for you, but when I looked in the bowl, we'd eaten it all."
"That's okay. That tail was enough for me anyway. Next time though, I wouldn't mind a little of the salad too. You know I like the way you fix that."
"Us kids wouldn't mind a little lobster too, you know. Chicken isn't that good when you're sitting next to a stuffed lobster tail."
"Yutch you should have opened that yap of yours and said something. You know I'm always happy to share." Like hell he was. Plus, if I had spoken up, my mother would have been all over me in an instant, and sent me to bed early for not appreciating the good chicken she'd taken the time to lovingly cook for me. In my family, they had all of us kids both coming and going. There was never a way to win against them.
A year later, I had worked all morning, digging steamer clams for a man down by the river who sold lobsters and clams off the dock by his house. He paid me with two nice lobsters, at least three pounders, and still alive. I ran them right home, with them covered in dampened newspapers. I gave them excitedly to my mother, expecting her to cook them right away, one for me and one for her. All us kids ate meatloaf for supper instead, and she and my father had steamed fresh lobster for their supper. She thanked me for the lobsters, but then she told me that it wouldn't be right for her to give some to me when there wasn't enough for my brother and sisters too. By her lights, she was doing the right thing. My parents made many other real sacrifices for their children. They were a little funny though about the better or more expensive foods.
Once when we had Ray and Sandy over for dinner, I had Ellen bring out lobster for her and I and a couple hot dogs that she put in front of Ray. Sandy thought it was hilarious, but Ray didn't think it was at all amusing. After I switched plates with him though, he was pretty happy. When Ellen came in later with another two lobsters, he admitted that he was a little disappointed. Sandy told us that Ray liked to be treated special at mealtimes, and often ate steak if she cooked something else that he wasn't that fond of.
It was a month later that Billy beat up on his brother Dale, and Uncle Bill took the belt to him. Uncle Bill really did a good job on Billy, leaving big welts on his back, butt and legs. He promised Billy that the next time he laid a finger on Dale, that he'd kill him. My father went over to see Uncle Bill that same night, only minutes after he had gotten home, and within seconds of my mother having filled him in on what had transpired. There was some kind of an argument, verbal only, and my father came home satisfied that Uncle Bill didn't really mean that he'd literally kill Billy.
Uncle Donald went over to Uncle Bill's house too, but he went there to congratulate Uncle Bill for finally curbing Billy's temper. That visit by Uncle Donald ultimately led to the last physical fight he and my father ever had with each other, and resulted in Uncle Donald moving out of the projects and over to New London.
Cousin Billy didn't leave his bedroom for a solid week after the beating his father had given him. Cousin Dale was out and about, but he still showed lots of signs from his run in with Billy. He had an eye that was completely swollen closed, and had turned a dark purple color rather than black, and he walked gingerly, favoring his left side. He and Billy had gotten into it when Billy was teasing Dale about studying all the time, and then had pushed Dale's books and notebooks off of the kitchen table and onto the linoleum floor. Dale had muttered something about Billy being a moron, and that's when Billy tore into him. I really looked up to my Cousin Dale, and felt bad for him for having been beaten up by his much younger brother. Dale didn't believe that his father's punishment of Billy would work, and he was certain that Billy would blame him for what their father had done. Surprisingly, at least to me, Dale wasn't ashamed that Billy was stronger than him. I couldn't imagine being beaten up by my younger brother, certainly not when we were both children at least.
It was about four days after Billy got strapped by Uncle Bill's belt, and my father sent me over to check on Billy's condition. He was surprised that Billy hadn't come over to our house since before it had all happened. I went over to Billy's house and my Aunt Margaret told me to go knock on Billy's bedroom door to find out if he'd even let me in. I knocked, but Billy just yelled out for whoever it was to go away.
"It's me Billy, Jackie. My dad wanted me to come over and see if you were okay, or if you needed anything."
"I don't need anything from any of you, just leave me alone." I thought about what I might say to change his mind, but I didn't want him to get mad at me too, so I just turned around and left. My Aunt Margaret looked up as I walked past her, but she probably knew he wasn't going to let me in his room to see him in the first place. I walked back home, and my father looked up from his newspaper.
"He wouldn't talk to me. He said to leave him alone. He sounds mad as all get out too." My father just nodded and then went back to his newspaper. My mother came in from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron. She walked over to my father's chair and waited for him to notice her and put down his paper. Finally he finished whatever story he was reading, and lowered the newspaper to his lap.
"What?" My father didn't like to be disturbed when he was reading his paper. My mother was pretty well the only one that he'd allow to disturb him then, and even she had better have something important to say when she did so.
"Margaret says Billy won't eat or drink anything. He only comes out of his room to use the bathroom. He doesn't talk to anybody, and Dale's afraid of him and sleeping on the sofa in their living room. She's afraid he'll waste away in his room. It's been four days now." My mother was concerned, as much for her sister's sake as for Billy. Billy was Aunt Margaret's favorite, and Dale was Uncle Bill's.
"Well what in the hell do you expect me to do about it Mary Kathryn? Do you want me to go over there and beat on him some more until I can make him go eat something? The boy is adjusting to things, that's all. His pride is hurt, and he's mad. He probably sneaks out at night and raids the fridge when the rest of them are sleeping. He can drink out of the sink in the bathroom if he wants to. Just leave it be for a few days. He'll come around." My mother didn't say anything to him, she just nodded and turned back to go into her kitchen.
After a week had gone by, and Billy was still in his room, even Uncle Bill was getting worried. Five or six times that day he stood outside Billy's bedroom door and told him to come out and eat something, for his mother's sake, if not for his own. Billy wouldn't even acknowledge his father's voice. Aunt Margaret came over to our house and she was in the kitchen crying while my mother tried to comfort her. My father was trying to read his newspaper, but he finally gave up on reading with all the racket coming from the kitchen. I was sitting outside on the porch, separating some of my new baseball cards into keepers and stuff I was willing to trade. Mostly I collected the Dodgers and the Yankees players, plus Ted Williams who was my favorite player at that time. My favorite Yankee was Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider was my favorite Dodger. My dad came out on the porch and lit up a cigarette. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, to see if he was going to say anything about me playing with my baseball cards. He thought they were a waste of good money. He smoked quietly though, staring over at my Uncle Bill's house. After he put his cigarette out and then field stripped the butt, instead of turning around and going back into the house, he came down the steps and walked over to Uncle Bill's. He said something to Uncle Bill, through the screen door, and then he opened it up and went inside. He was out of sight for about five minutes, and then he came walking out the door and my cousin Billy, was right behind him. The two of them walked out to the street and hopped into my dad's old Pontiac and then drove off together. I went back in the house with my big news.
"Hey ma, pop and Billy just left in pop's car." My mother and Aunt Margaret just stared at me like I'd said a bad word or something. Then, the two of them got up and walked over to my Aunt's house to see for themselves. My mother came back home after another few minutes, and went back to doing things in the kitchen. Aunt Margaret stayed at her house. By the time I went off to bed, my father still hadn't gotten home. I saw him early the next morning as he was eating breakfast, before heading off to work, but he didn't say anything about Billy, and I sure wasn't going to ask him about it.
After breakfast, I got ready for school and Ray, Joan and I all left at the same time. Billy came out at the same time as we were leaving, and he headed off to the junior high school. He'd already missed a whole week of school by staying in his room. I didn't see Dale, but he usually left early to get to school, and then he'd use the school library. Dale was really smart, and read one whole book every day. After school that day, Billy was out playing with his friends and to look at him, you'd never know anything had ever happened. He and Margaret Tracy were back together again, for maybe the twentieth time, and she was hanging all over him. She and I didn't get along too well because she was stuck up, and liked to tease me about being so skinny. I stayed away from Billy when she was around him because she would sometimes get him to be mean to me too.
That afternoon, when my Uncle Donald got home, he couldn't help but notice Billy being outside and surrounded by all of his friends again. "I hope you learned your lesson this time Billy. I'd be shocked if you did though. I'm surprised that your father was the one to teach it to you though. I kind of thought that job would have to fall to me." Uncle Donald hadn't stopped walking while he was talking, and he was almost at his own front porch when Billy said something that I couldn't hear. I was a lot closer than Uncle Donald was too. "What was that Billy? Did you just say something to me?" Uncle Donald turned, and was glaring at Billy.
"I said that I hope you don't teach me the same things that you taught all of your kids." Billy made sure that Uncle Donald heard him clearly that time.
"And what was it you think I taught them that you wouldn't want to learn?" I was getting worried for Billy now, because I just knew he was going to get Uncle Donald mad and get himself another beating.
"I wouldn't know where to begin Uncle Donald, but there's lots of things I wouldn't like to learn that they did."
"Give me some examples then, Billy, why don't you start with that." Uncle Donald had reversed his direction and was coming back towards Billy. He wasn't hurrying, just ambling back towards him.
"Okay, how about David, who's a thief and a coward, and Chrissie, who's the biggest slut in the neighborhood, and Donnie who lies and blames everything bad he does on someone else." Billy stopped talking then, and looked at my uncle as he kept slowly approaching him.
"Are you saying my daughter Christine is a slut Billy? That's a pretty bad thing to say about any girl, especially your own cousin." As he finished saying that, Uncle Donald was within reach of Billy, and he lashed out with his right hand and slapped Billy's face so hard that the whole neighborhood could hear it. There was an immediate rush of blood to Billy's face and his eyes watered from the force of the slap. He stepped backwards, as much from the surprise as from the slap itself.
"You asked me a question, and I answered it. You've got no right to hit me, you aren't my father!"
"You ever spread lies like that about my daughters, or any of my children, you'll get a lot more than slapped Billy, now get out of my sight before I really lose my temper." Billy had enough sense to turn away and leave. Before he turned though, I noticed that the whole left side of his face was marked by the slap he'd received. His lip had a little cut to it too, and a small trickle of blood could be seen. That was some slap, and I was glad that I hadn't been on the receiving end of it. Uncle Donald went back to his house and slammed his front door closed. Billy came back after Uncle Donald went inside, and was complaining to all of his friends about how people wanted you to answer their questions, and when you did, they hauled off and let you have it.