Men in workpants, coveralls and white cotton shirts, half the men in town, it seemed, flocked together on a damp November evening in one of the livestock barns at the otherwise unoccupied fairgrounds, stood in ankle-deep wood shavings beneath fluorescent bulbs and made wisecracks about having a hearse on standby as two men slugged it out in a terrible perfume of blood, stale nicotine and Old Granddad.
Henry Lee, the darkly pomaded one, lean and muscled, well-read, fiery-eyed and yet infected with misgivings about himself and considered a nobody in a no-name town—circled his enemy, sidled left, missed with a wild swing and tottered sideways.
His old man was here, a Vietnam War vet who looked like Cochise and ran a diner in town—a father who once told Henry Lee that men unwilling to fight were not worth a damn, that intellect and negotiation would take one only so far, that sooner or later there would come a crisis that could be resolved only through Neolithic belligerence, perhaps blood would be involved, and that such belligerence would define a man, and for that reason a man must choose his fight with wisdom, with farsightedness. The father was a sage.
Henry Lee’s opponent was in the poultry business. He came from money. Big Man Jones, they called him. He was like an ancient statue of a flabby, Mongoloid chieftain with muttonchop sideburns.
Henry Lee gambled on an uppercut, and his foe bobbled and wiggled. Both men, bare-chested, had hung their shirts on rusted nails. Big Man Jones was brawny in the manner of a competitive weight lifter, with granite arms and shoulders wider than a doorframe. Henry Lee was closer to someone in a martial arts movie—sinewy. He’d trained with a secondhand pair of Cleto Reyes fight gloves and a heavy bag ordered from the Sears book. Still, no one gave him credit. The hearse jokes were directed at him, not Big Man Jones.
Among the hooting fairground naysayers there were a few women, one named Jenny Whitmire—the cause of this ruckus. Henry Lee had yearned for her since fourth grade when the wagged-tongued boys chased her lightheartedly through the pea gravel playground. Whatever had existed between them (he called it a pact) was akin to that of siblings, remaining in such a state until teendom, until his hormones went awry and Jenny Whitmire began to look like a movie star. In fact, she was a stellar thespian in local productions of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and You Can’t Take It With You. Half the male population had a sick crush on her, and she savored the manner in which chaps fell into argument over her. All the while, Henry Lee could not, as they say, imagine himself with another. He felt he had a right to her. She was Eve to his Adam, he believed, and it was only a matter of convincing her, of wearing her down, and here he was at nineteen, running a diner with his dad, still believing that he could possess her.
She was eerily beautiful with Mick Jagger lips, long and angled chocolate-cherry hair, clothed in a fur-collared, suede babydoll coat with Dingo boots. She kept saying, “How grand.” Every time something happened, it was grand.
Hate bubbled in Henry Lee’s mind, his rage boiled over into wrath, and he rushed in, half-crazed, chin against chest, elbows drawn and shoulders burning, bombarding his foe with a shelling of punches, uncontrollable yet efficient and precise, his jabs rapid-fire.
The enemy was overwhelmed, appalled; he backpedaled, unprepared for such ferocity. “This wasn’t the deal,” the poultry man must’ve been thinking.
And yet, if Henry Lee had heeded his father and remained detached, poised, mindful of his surroundings, and if he’d been an actual boxer and this altercation were happening in a boxing ring instead of a fairground cowshed, he would never have rammed his fist into the wall of the barn. After he’d cornered his foe against a planked wall, the opponent sidled right and Henry Lee punched the graying wood, and in the half moment he doubled over and studied his throbbing and bloodied knuckles, his enemy became a world champion.
Big Man Jones delivered a bone-cracking left hook that snapped Henry Lee’s head back and followed with a wrecking ball to the gut.
Henry Lee floundered, his mind filled with bright light, and he tumbled backward into the lumber chips, the chips feathering his lathered torso. He swabbed his bloodied mouth and tried standing, but the universe swayed, and he rolled on his hips in the wood shavings, intent on crawling away like a wounded dog until Big Man Jones field-goal-kicked his ribs.
“You made your point, Tubby.” The father couldn’t bear it, stepped between them, his fists balled, the veins bursting across his forehead.
Unmoving, Henry Lee tasted the cold, dank air, the flavor of copper pennies.
Somebody in a cartoonish voice said he had it coming.
The poultry man and his posse smirked, wagged their heads, peacocked and left in a cream-colored Eldorado.
Jenny, sufficiently regaled by this spectacle, said something to Henry Lee on her way to the Eldorado. She said it was sweet of him to have done this.
Once the other onlookers realized there was nothing left to gawk at, other than Henry Lee lying in sawdust, they departed.
The father knelt and asked his son if he could move, comprehend, identify his whereabouts, account for the year. He helped his son rise, and Henry Lee staggered like his insides were coming apart. They left in the old man’s Ford truck.
They lived on five acres near the train tracks. There was an old tobacco barn and a rust-covered grain silo within view of the farmhouse and its tin-roofed porch where Henry Lee emerged after soaking in scalding water in a claw-bottomed tub. His father put a record on the console and opened the porch window so he could hear Jim Reeves sing, “Yonder Comes a Sucker.”
As the son of a restaurant owner, Henry Lee was raised on biscuits and chicken-fried steak and green beans swimming in salted pork fat. Lately, though, he’d been drinking whole milk with protein powder, sometimes cracking raw eggs into a glass and drinking them, something he saw in a movie. He ran twenty miles a week, ten at once on occasion, worked the heavy bag and read a Japanese philosophy text called The Book of Five Rings. But he could not bring the girl he loved around to his way of thinking, which is how he ended up on the porch with his eyebrow swollen, his high cheekbone deepening into a shade of eggplant and scrapes on his knuckles. Nothing was broken, he was certain, because the bag had toughened his hands.
“Son, we need to discuss what brought about tonight’s act of daredevilry,” his father said, gripping a bottle of Nehi Grape. “Let me explain something—in the old days, men squared off sometimes over a woman, and the last man standing got the woman.”
“This situation didn’t quite work like that,” Henry Lee said.
“Tell me how it worked.”
“Big Man Jones didn’t want me talking to her.”
It had always been a matter of time before one of Jenny’s suitors became perturbed with what many in town dismissed as Henry Lee’s impetuous longing. Big Man Jones, not the generous sort, psychotically possessive, declared those two must terminate all conversation. Henry Lee, after all these years, was supposed to pretend he didn’t even know her.
“Lemme see if I’m hearing you right,” his father said. “Mister High and Mighty wanted to fight because you keep talking to his girlfriend?”
“Yes sir,” Henry Lee said.
“So what you’re saying is—if, suppose, you’d beaten the living tar out of that pissant, opened up a can of cream of whoopass soup and given him the shellacking of his sorryass life—then what you’d gotten out of it would’ve been—the privilege of talking to her?”
Henry Lee processed this new way of seeing things.
“That gal must be one hell of a conversationalist,” his father said.
Henry Lee’s wounded body was beginning to talk to him now, thawing out. There was not a fiber of tissue in his face that did not ache.
“You know what happens when you keep bringing flowers to a girl like that?” the old man asked.
“They end up on your grave.”
Henry Lee now had a furious look about him.
“Your granddaddy made corn liquor and run it through a car radiator.” The old man swished his grape drink like mouthwash, cleaning his teeth. “That stump juice is what rurned his insides,” he said. “Probably tasted good, though.”
“You don’t have to be that way,” Henry Lee said.