Saturday, July 28, 2012

No Caravan of Despair

It was the last weekend in July and I was in big trouble. Dad hadn’t been able to keep the place in San Jose. It was just too big for the three of us so we moved across town next to the many storied Pruneyard Towers at 100 Union Street, Apt #36 in Campbell, California.

I was relieved to be many additional miles away from one acquaintance who had invested a fairly large amount of illegal material in me. Mick expected a substantial return in the market I was to open up in this new city. Unfortunately, my younger brother and I had enjoyed his investment very much, profit and all! I now owed a considerable sum to this tough kid with biceps the size of my thighs. The movie, Rocky had recently won the Oscar for Best Picture and this guy was also an Italian-American from the east coast who actually looked and sounded like Stallone. He was even left-handed!

After all the evidence went up in smoke I tried my best for several weeks to stay away from him. I long ignored his ‘generous invitations,’ but finally consented to meet him, and would try hard to bluff my way through, to buy more time, to con the con man face to face. At first congenial, within a few minutes he took me aside and, in true gangster-like fashion, promised that our next meeting would likely not go well. Unless, of course, I had the money I owed him, with interest. Back in front of his entourage, which included attractive ladies and a handful of body-building and juvenile hall alum, Mick pulled me close to his face, smiled menacingly and whispered that he would find and sincerely hurt me if he didn’t get his money. He was very serious. I could smell it on his breath. Then he released me from his grip, flashed that mile wide, handsome, perfectly-toothed smile and sent me on my way. I had one week.

Where could I get that kind of cash? I asked my dad. He frowned. I couldn’t tell him why I needed such a large amount. Like me, my friends had nothing to offer. I was broke. I wasn’t working. I had no valuables to sell. I didn’t want to steal but that seemed a new possibility.

I spent the next few days hiding at Half Moon Bay with my best friend Mark. We thought and thought about how to come up with thousands of dollars, how to produce such a large amount out of thin air! We finally gave up our escape attempt and dejectedly headed back over Highway 17.

I thanked Mark for his friendship and for all his help. He said again that he was more than willing to face my enemy and even fight him in my stead.

“That SOB needs someone to kick his butt,” he urged. “I should be the one to defile his pretty face. I may get bloodied doin’ it, but he’ll regret every minute he wrestled with me!” He was right; Mark could stand up to him but I knew I had to be the one to face the giant alone.

“It’s cool, Mark. I got myself into this hole…and maybe he’ll forget about it anyway,” I said, knowing it wasn’t true.

When I arrived home that evening my dad said two “friends” were waiting for me in my bedroom. “Friends? What do they look like?” I whispered, as the color drained from my face. My worst fears were being realized. Mick was there, in my room with one of his cronies. How did he find this apartment? Who gave him the directions? I excused myself and ducked into the hallway bathroom. As my heart sank, I thought of running. But where would I go? I couldn’t run forever. He knew where I lived! Surely he would give me another week to get the money. I left the bathroom and entered my bedroom.

He was there with Tony, who was even tougher looking than his boss. And there, too, was my little brother, sheepishly grinning and blissfully stoned. Jerry had often stood up for me, fighting ferociously whenever duty called. In fact, not too long before, with one punch he had flattened an acquaintance who dared to threaten me. Of course, the kid he knocked out was not the one now sitting on my waterbed. Jerry knew that I’d have to settle this alone and was quite content to stay behind while the three of us made our way past my dad and out the door.

We went downstairs to the parking lot and stood facing each other in an empty space on a cool, summer evening. Mick said my time was up. He wanted his money, and he wanted it now. “Steal it! Borrow it from your mother,” he barked. Most of his vocabulary consisted of profanity, limited to just two or three words which he used to great effect though he did manage to toss in an occasional pronoun.

I reasoned with him; I pleaded. But I would not beg. He became highly agitated and began to pace and circle me like a hungry animal that must soon pounce on its prey. Nothing less than a fight would satisfy him.

“Mick, this is crazy. Look at you! You’re huge. I can’t possibly compete,” I reasoned, trying to bluff him, trying to avoid the inevitable.

“Take off your jacket!” He snarled, nostrils flaring and head lowering for the charge.

I definitely did not want a fight but he was beginning to get on my nerves. “An irritating fly that just won’t shut up.” I thought. I decided at the right moment that I would go down swinging. He continued to banter and then began to shove me as his muscular friend remained silent, standing off to the side with arms folded, stationed like a sentry who would insure no retreat.

Mick tried a new tactic. He began to mock me and my father and brother. In many ways he spoke the truth though I wouldn’t understand that until later. I remembered the few times I had boxed him in my back yard with regulation gloves and timed rounds surrounded by a crowd of our peers who jeered and cheered. And I’d done well against every opponent, including Mick. Most of the groupies who dared enter the ring with him were too afraid to actually throw effective punches for fear of what would surely follow. I understood that; I had been afraid, too! Still, I had wanted his respect and so had fought as well as I knew how and he knew that.

His unreasonable and ridiculous rantings were bringing me dangerously close to losing it. “Get that so-and-so jacket off now and fight like a man!” He screamed. The balance now tipped and I resolved go down with dignity and make him regret this assault.

I wish I had remembered the approach taken by my matinee idol, Steve McQueen when confronted under similar circumstances. Or, had I responded like Paul Newman in the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I would have gained the edge I so desperately needed. Newman’s character toppled his much larger foe through a surprise, well placed kick to the groin. But, while I considered my first move, Mick remembered the movie.

Exasperated and flushed with adrenaline, I began to remove my light coat. When it was half way off my arms, my head exploded and down I went. Mick had taken advantage of my momentary incapacity and this southpaw had buried his massive left fist dead center into my face. I was completely knocked out! I had often wondered why those boxing greats couldn’t just “jump right up” after such a punch and continue to fight. Now I understood.

I tried to move but everything was spinning around. At first, I couldn’t make out where I was or even what had happened. He challenged me to stand up but I had always been a bleeder. Even if I had wanted to continue, the slightest nose bleed required that I sit for at least twenty minutes.

“It will be even worse if I don’t see the cash by this weekend,” he threatened, slapping my head for effect before stomping off.

I was now alone. Flat on my back and slurping down gulps of my own blood, I found myself dreading the future. It wasn’t about the money. It was about my life. My folks were long divorced. My siblings were getting into trouble. I was sure to fail my second attempt at a senior year. My best friend was the only boy in school who wore an earring. I was without a girlfriend or a job. Even a peaceful journey, on a beach south of San Francisco, had been unable to bring relief. The blow to my face was miniscule compared to the impact on my heart. But I would change. I would leave this life style of multiple humiliations. It would be my turning.

Well, you can’t hide blood. I returned to our apartment and promised dad that I’d find a job and pay him back. That weekend, I sent someone else to deliver the money. I was officially finished with Mick.

Until recently, that is, when I located him on facebook. He was still in possession of that handsome, toothy smile and his muscles appeared unchanged. And he was apparently living a happy, affluent life. As I looked, I wished I had punched first.

I quickly left the page.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”


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