And there’s a lot of wisdom in her words. Mamma knows best and Mamma knows her man. That’s “man” as in my old man or more appropriately, her old man.
Anyhow, the old man — what an entrepreneur!
First, it was having us all pick strawberries on weekends. Then it was potato picking and later, baling hay.
When Dad decided there wasn’t much profit directly related to farming, he bought this old auger and tried to make a go of it by drilling fence-post holes for some of his farmer friends. He said that he heard on an agricultural news channel that although it was hard making money in a direct-line “ag” business, some complementary side-industries were doing well.
So that day, he was sold on the posthole-digging venture and went out and bought the most expensive auger the hardware store had on its floor. After investing fifteen-hundred-and-some dollars in the computerized, diesel auger, Dad was disturbed to find there wasn’t much demand for digging fence-post holes. He was also surprised to find the auger was so complicated he couldn’t figure out how to work it. He never looked at the owner’s guide for tips and shortcuts, though.
Looking back, Dad was about five or six centuries behind things. He really should have bought a good PC, commissioned the help of AOL or Internet Explorer, and then he should have opened up an e-mail address with a universe-full of memory and capacity and gone into some cyber-business gig.
But that’s all behind us now.
And with Dad’s always inquisitive and entrepreneurial mind, perhaps the scariest thought is what’s ahead for us, like what’s right around the next bend? Alaskan crab fishing wouldn’t be out of the question. Neither would be some kind of high-paying racquet, like laundry contracting, in some war-torn foreign country. And even though he has always been a God-fearing, Christian man, if someone would mention to him, some day when he was particularly feeling miserable and inadequate over his own monetary condition, he might even consider drug or weapons-running, though I doubt he’d actually do it, especially if he talked to Mom about such notions. And Dad always consulted Mom over such business ventures. She has always been the actual CEO, CFO and President of all our family business deals.
However, that’s never stopped the old man from pleading with her. And Dad has always been a real mallet head over anything that has to do with a big ‘S’ with two bars running through its high and low-beams. I remember fairly recently, my poor mother was standing in the kitchen trying to reason with him. He was seated at the table, drinking a very strong cup of coffee. It was about midnight on a weekday.
I remember it as if it all happened last night. It was early in the week and I couldn’t sleep so I sat in the kitchen with them. My old man couldn’t sleep, either. He was totally wired-out on caffeine, stress and the blue-collar blues.
A tape by David Allen Coe was playing in the background. The twanging country-western blues spawned a real aura of futility over the whole situation. Mr. Coe was singing about being an outlaw guitar picker, like he did in every other song on the album. My Dad liked the tape, even though it was made when country music was actually termed “country western,” and it was backdated to a time when country music definitely wasn’t cool.
Meantime, Mom was shaking her pretty head, her hair dangling down in a ponytail in the back like, well, like a real pony’s tail. I think she was beautiful standing right there, and for that moment I was so proud to be her son. Of course, I wasn’t ever ashamed to be Mom’s son, but she looked so commanding and stern, yet with a child’s innocence and naiveté [R1] [sv2] [sv3] [sv4] at that particular moment. And at all the same time, Mom looked really, really cute, too.
“You have a job, Andy. I can get a job. The kids are getting older and we’ll make it,” Mom said to him.
And Dad just sat there, his eyes all buggy and crazy, staring straight ahead at the refrigerator.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” he snapped, an order more than a question.
“Why don’t you?” I retorted.
“You know, it used to be that a kid would get a good whipping for saying something like that. But today, the kids call the local news team about such things. They call it all an atrocity and put the parent trying to discipline the stupid brat ‘a criminal’.”
“You’re talking crazy again,” I told him.
“You are. Your son’s right,” Mom agreed. “And if he didn’t care about you and this crazy family, he’d be in bed sleeping.”
“But I’m worried, honey. We’re having a hard time making ends meet. It’s really tough. I just want to be a good provider for my family, that’s all,” he said.
“You don’t need to try all these far-fetched angles just to make a few extra dollars,” Mom said. “Why don’t you find a permanent resting place for that auger? Put it way in the back of all that junk inside the rickety old shed.”
“Do you mean the shed in back of this house? Or do you mean the house itself?” Dad asked, sarcastically, with a very mean tone. “You’re a helluva woman, Trudy. I love you more than anything in this world. But you’ve got the housekeeping skills of a cavewoman.”
“You didn’t marry me for my Betty Crocker skills,” Mom said, facetiously.
“Just give me some time to find the right sideline and we’ll be in the money. I just want a better quality of life for us all,” Dad told her, in a calmer, more compassionate tone.
And Dad was right. He just did these crazy things for his family to get ahead. And really, most of the things my father thought up were crazy and insane. Even worse, they didn’t make much money at all but caused us a lot of problems, and believe it or not, they usually caused us a lot of money problems.
The god of money works in mysterious ways. Dad, who works in a welding shop, has a martial artist friend who works with him. One day, this man gave Dad a couple karate magazines.
Looking through the classifieds in back of one of these magazines, dad noticed an advertisement for a regulation kickboxing ring for only two hundred bucks. The advertisement went on to say there were more than a hundred kickboxing extravaganzas throughout the eastern half of the United States each year, and by acting as a ring supplier for these matches, a person could earn anywhere from four hundred to several thousand dollars for one night of supplying a regulation ring.
But the ad also said that along with supplying the ring, the ring owner had to set it up and tear it down. And of course, it goes without saying that the ring owner had to haul this big contraption around, from kickboxing match to kickboxing match. Dad never questioned all the work involved with this line of work. He didn’t give the potential troubles of hauling this thing around; just buy a tag-along trailer and haul the big ring behind the car. As simple as cutting cheesecake with a chain saw; yeah: dad was up to his old tricks again, chasing the almighty dollar with an old pair of tennis shoes with no soles.
* * *
A couple weeks passed. The scene was the same: our kitchen. The time: about an hour later from the earlier late-night get together, which put it about one in the morning. My father was drinking another very strong cup of coffee. Although it was a cheap, industrial-grind blend, it had all the syrupy qualities of a very strong espresso.
“Trudy, this is the big one, baby. Me, you and the kids are in the money this time,” he told Mom as he showed her the ad.
“Andy, you know I still have my license to cut hair from that cosmetology school I attended after Gary was born. I want to get a job cutting hair. There’s an opening at Cutrina’s Cuts & Curls on Main Street. What do you say I go to work there?”
“No way. You’re staying at home. As long as I have two legs, two arms and a clear head, you’re going to stay where a woman belongs — in this house, to take care of the house and the kids.”
“Andy, we’ll be driving all over the place setting up that ring. You won’t get any sleep on weekends and you need your rest. You’re a welder and you have a hard job.”
“It’s gonna’ give us a chance to see some of the country, Baby,” he replied. “It’s real pretty country, too. Oh, there’ll be some ugly sections, I’m sure. But it’s all good. We’ve never done much traveling and it’s a golden opportunity to make a lot of money.”
“Any excuse, Andy,” Mom sighed. “Any excuse to make a buck. What about that auger? How’s about when all of us baled hay for old man McDermott and picked potatoes for that farming family. . .Oh, what were their names. . .The Franklins, that’s them, I think so, anyhow. . . .”
“Well we made some money, didn’t we?” Dad countered.
“Not enough to pay the bills at the time, I remember. And definitely not enough to account for all the trouble we went through doing those stupid little jobs,” Mom said.
They got into a big argument that lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. It was a hot June night and it would have been hard to sleep without all the shouting (we don’t have air conditioning and the electric fans don’t do much good). Anyway, Grandpa always said their arguments over money was on account of the young age my parents got married. They were both sixteen years old when they tied the knot and now, in their mid-thirties, they’re out of the honeymoon stage and into the kickboxing-checkbook-rage stage. Sure, they both looked good and their sex lives were confined to the master bedroom and the master bedroom only, but a bit more green probably would have made their lovemaking a little less like a football scrimmage.
Even when they make love, they play rough. See, my bedroom juts up against their bedroom. Some nights, it sounds like a riot is going on inside there. Thumping and bumping; grinding and winding; screaming and squealing — my Mom and Dad had it going on inside the bed, if not at the bank. Livin’ on love, all the way to the poor house. . . .What they should’ve done is make a few of those “blue” internet movies and opened up a web site. I’m sure with some clever advertising on a homepage, window-dressed with some very luring free trailers, they would’ve found a few happy credit card holders willing to shell out thirty or forty bucks a month to be allowed voyeur privileges into their bedroom. But they were far too stoic and religious to do such a thing, even though they didn’t go to church much.
Anyhow, to get back to the main story, grandpa always had plans that his youngest daughter would go to medical or law school or become a banker or something. Mom graduated at the very top of her class and even got a high school diploma that had “Summa Cum Laude,” written on it. I don’t know, it’s all Greek to me. But I’ve heard that Mom was pregnant with Jenny on her graduation day and probably was quite a sight back then. . . .
* * *
The time dad and I drove out to central Indiana from our home in western Pennsylvania to pick up that kickboxing ring was a real treat. We must have been in that old jalopy pickup truck of his a good nine hours. One way. The truck only goes about forty-five miles an hour — tops — and makes the worst kinds of sputtering and choking noises you’d ever dream of hearing.
Anyhow, we got there and some guy with a long beard who looked like some kind of guru showed us the ring and the trailer it fit inside. The ring was brand new. Pulling out a few parts from these big boxes it sat in, the man showed us that the ring hadn’t even been taken out of its packaging. Dad looked through it and found everything necessary to build a kickboxing ring. Dad has a lot of know-how when it comes to mechanics, you see. He’s been playing around with nuts and bolts, screws and labor dues, since he was my early age. Anyhow, we hooked that trailer up to our pickup and headed back to Sharpsville.
On the trip back, I asked Dad why he didn’t ask that weird looking man why he was selling the ring.
“After all, two hundred dollars ain’t much for such a big thing. Heck, some of the parts weren’t even taken out of their wrapping,” I said.
“Shut up,” Dad said. “Don’t ask questions. Someday, oh someday. . .”
And now, someday is here and I know why that guru was getting rid of that ring. When we got home, it was four in the morning. It was a Monday night, or more appropriately, a Monday morning. Very early in the morning, as in the wee hours of the morning. Dad had to be at work in three hours. He hadn’t slept much all weekend. He was in a terribly bad mood.
As soon as we pulled into the drive, I jumped out of the truck and went into my bedroom, where I put a pair of industrial earplugs in my ears. I found the earplugs in his hard hat a long time ago. I use them often. I knew he and Mom would have a good two hour shouting match concerning the ring, that’s why I twisted those spongy plugs around between my fingers and shoved them as far as they would go into my ears. I jumped in bed and almost right away, I was sound asleep.
When I got up, the kitchen was a mess, with broken cups and saucers all over the place and there was a big hole in the back door, which leads into the kitchen. My older sister, Jenny, who’s 16, whispered, “The kickboxing ring. . . .This mess and that hole in the door all had to do with the kickboxing ring. Mom’s gone to Aunt Deb’s. Dad’s at work.”
I made some cereal and went into the living room and watched Animal Planet for awhile, and later, some M-TV 2. I wasn’t going to school. I felt like I was in a kickboxing match. It’s funny, I doubt my parents even cared whether I went or not; before the kickboxing family venture, there would’ve been hell to pay if I skipped school when I wasn’t actually sick. And I didn’t hear even a little squeak that morning when the war was going on. I was so sleepy I could’ve slept through a real, conventional war.
It didn’t take long for my old man to get a contract to set up that ring. The very next weekend, we were en route to Gary, Indiana, to set up the ring for the Fight of the Dragons. Now when Dad told my older sister, my younger brother and I that Gary was just a stone’s throw from Chicago, we cheered like wild warriors. We were going to Chicago! Chicago! The most famous city in the United States besides New York City and Los Angeles!
But we didn’t get to see any of Chicago. All we saw was a city about as run down as any American city could ever hope to be. Where we ended up that night was a place called Gary, Indiana. When got there, it was two in the morning Saturday. Dad worked a double at work Thursday so the boss would let him go to Gary for the weekend. But he slept a long time after he got home and we got off to a late start. I kept asking Mom if I could wake him up, and she said, “Don’t you dare, Gary. He needs his rest.”
At first I was happy we were in Gary. I have a personal stake in this, you see. My first name is Gary — Gary Sanders.
Well, Dad was really in a bad mood driving that truck with me, Tommy, Jenny and Mom inside. Little Tommy had to sit on either Jenny’s or Mom’s lap most of the trip so there was room in the cab. We got a flat tire in Toledo and were down for about an hour while Dad changed that floppy black jalopy rubber thing. Just after we passed the Indiana line, the truck started shaking like it was going to fly apart. We all got kind of scared. But Dad kept driving, with a face like a wooden salt shaker.
“Andy, let’s forget about this,” Mom said, meekly, but with the controlling tone of a real school crossing guard.
It was only a matter of minutes before we were riding on the rim. And just as she said this, the tire blew.
“Oh God, look at those cars and trucks whirling by,” Mom said.
“For crying out loud, Trudy, this is a good way for us to get ahead! Do you always want to be poor! Do you always want to have to borrow from your father?!”
“Dad doesn’t mind,” Mom whispered. “I know he’d rather give us some money now and then rather than have us all run over on an interstate by a big 18-wheeler.”
“Oh, you think this is dangerous? I’ve changed a million tires on the interstate.”
“But he’s over seventy years old! Do you think he’s going to be alive forever?!”
“No, but I know he has us in his will.”
“For God’s sakes, Trudy, he’s your father. You shouldn’t talk like this.”
“Like how? Like how, Mr. Compassionate? Like Dad’s never going to die? Like he doesn’t worry about our family’s financial welfare?”
He jumped out of the pickup after grabbing a big handjack in the back of the cab. We could feel his work as it reverberated slightly, from the shocks to the rest of the under body and into the cab. It felt like rigid tickling. And after only a few minutes, my dear old Dad jumped back into the cab, fired up the engine and we were honing with the rest of the land-based spaceships again.
“Let me take that job cutting hair,” Mom said, assertively.
“Who’s going to take care of my kids?! I don’t want those kids growing up without a mother running things!” he shouted.
“Oh Andy, things can be a lot simpler than this.”
Jenny, little Tommy and I were waiting for things to start flying around in that cab. It was becoming the typical argument about money. But they both backed off and Dad drove to Gary. And like I said, when we got to the arena where the kickboxing matches were going to be held, it was in the middle of the night. Two old security guards let us in the building and immediately, Dad started taking the ring out of the trailer. He dragged it, part by part, along the big floor of the huge arena. A lot of the big stuff we helped him with; and man, we were all so tired we could hardly keep our eyes open! My sister, brother and I were very disappointed. Gary, Indiana, looked to be a lot like Youngstown, Ohio, which is near our home in Sharpsville. Both look like they’re filled with dirty old buildings and dirtier streets. Old factories were dotting some of the outskirt areas, and these places had the look of a stark prisons. My sister, my four-year-old younger brother and I began to feel cheated. Here we were, expecting to be in Chicago and we knew — right then — it wasn’t anything more than a lie. There was no way we were going to Chicago.
“Why don’t we rent a motel room and get some rest?” Mom asked Dad.
“Baby, I want to make sure this ring is set up right. This is the first time we’re setting up this thing. I want to give some lead time for any problems.”
“But the kickboxing matches aren’t going to start for another sixteen and a half hours,” she insisted.
Like always, the old man got his way and bulldogged through the night setting up the ring. Getting the floor down was hard, but we did it. Then came putting the posts up along with the tandem lines for the ropes. We put the skirts around the ring and doctored it up so it looked patriotic. The ring’s skirting was red, white and blue. It was so red, white and blue it looked like George Washington himself. The posts, the mat on the floor and the ropes were red, white and blue, too. I discovered later that these karate people are about as patriotic as the United States Marine Corps. The favorite karate uniform, or gi, at any given tournament is red, white and blue. A lot of the karate trophies have something patriotic on them, like an eagle or Old Glory, or a dark-blue field with white stars emblazoned in a shiny, salient way, as the background for some fancy plaque or trophy plate.
Anyhow, the security guards couldn’t believe our little pickup truck could carry such a big trailer. Dad more or less told them to mind their own business. And as Dad and I were putting together the safety pads that covered the tandem lines, my Old Man kept muttering horrible things about those two old security guards. By noon of what seemed to be the next day, we had completely assembled the ring. The only real glitch came during the trip over here, with the flat tire and the way the truck was shaking just after it passed the Indiana line.
When the ring was completed, we took our seats in the stands. By this time, a karate tournament was going on and there was a lot of noise. Colored belts — yellow, blue, green, purple, brown and red — were doing technique forms and some were point sparring. Dad told us to get some sleep, but with the loud yelling and screaming that goes along with technique form and point sparring karate tournaments, we managed to just fade in and out of slight dozes until the tournament ended about five in the afternoon. During the tournament, Jenny, Tommy and I ate a lot of pizza. This seemed to be my father’s way of compensating us for not getting a hotel room — he’d slip us as many ones and fives as he could whenever we said we were hungry. Then, from five to seven-thirty, we all snored, because nobody was in the arena then — the karate tournament was over and the night’s festivities, The Fight of the Dragons, had not yet begun. And when the kickboxing tournament started, we all felt a little bit better. I was stuffed from eating so much pizza and hot dogs. Jenny met one of the kickboxers — a 24-year-old from Detroit named Danny O’Brien.
Jenny spent a lot of time with Danny before he fought his match. I saw them in the hallway kissing. Danny stroked my sister. That would have caused old Andy to have a real fit. Flames would have shot out of the old man’s head, but I didn’t tell him a thing. I like my sister a lot more than I like my old man and I didn’t want to rat on her. Jenny would’ve been the only one who would catch hell over such a thing. My old man wouldn’t have said anything to the horny kickboxer. I love my sister, but sometimes she does things to hurt me. Seeing her there — in the hallway — getting kissed and stroked, made me feel so empty inside, like I had just lost her to a horrible disease or something.
That’s why, when Danny O’Brien lost his fight to this big black kid from Chicago, I really felt good. I even yelped and screamed a bit when Danny was going down from the knockout. Jenny gave me a real dirty look but I didn’t care. Yeah, that black kid beat the bleeding snot out of Danny, and Danny looked like a little mole crawling out of the ring after he was KOed in the second round. There are only three rounds to this kind of fighting and Danny is such a wimp, he couldn’t manage a good six minutes of kickboxing. Huh! The next time I see him stroking my sister I might even fight him. That little kickboxer in me says I should.
Things were business as usual the next week and Mom and the rest of us were relieved to know that Dad didn’t get a ring contract for the coming weekend. Two weekends in a row would have been way too much. But we made a thousand bucks for the Gary job and I know that with hard work and sacrifice comes some good times.
The Fourth of July weekend was coming up.
In the days following our return from Indiana, Dad bought some firecrackers, sparklers and bottle rockets and we set them off. We also had a really good pizza smothered with everything imaginable Wednesday and a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Thursday night. But late in the week, Dad seemed a little depressed. He couldn’t find a tournament the Fourth of July weekend that needed a ring. After calling several kickboxing promoters, he was informed that because kickboxing is such a minor sport, it could never compete with Fourth of July festivities.
So there would be no tournaments.
But the fun we had Fourth of July weekend was slammed in the head by the next weekend, which turned out to be a grueling kickboxing weekend. Yeah, the second weekend in July was more of a mess than the Gary trip. For one thing, the kickboxing event was held in Louisville, Kentucky, which was a heckuva long drive from Sharpsville. After an all night drive, we got to Louisville just when the tournament was starting. We rushed getting the ring put together in the middle of the gymnasium. It was distracting because technique form (or kata) and point sparring matches were going on all around us. It was a lucky thing that some members of the karate school hosting the tournament helped us put the ring up. We got it completely put together by 7:30 sharp, when the kickboxing event was set to start.
Dad went to the promoter after the ring was fully assembled and asked for his check. The deal was for twelve hundred and the promoter only wanted to pay Dad five hundred because some of the promoter’s students and parents of students helped us assemble the ring. Dad started cursing like crazy and the promoter, a sixth degree black belt himself, hit Dad and knocked good old, long-haired Andy off the steps of the elevated stage where they were standing. Dad got up, brushed himself off and jumped back on stage and whispered something in the promoter’s ear. The promoter immediately took his checkbook out and wrote Dad a check for the whole amount. On the drive home, Mom asked Dad what he whispered to that sleazy promoter. Dad didn’t answer. About halfway home, as the sun began to sneak its nosy head over the horizon, she asked again.
“You know that old man in that movie The Godfather, Trudy?” Dad replied.
“Yeah,” Mom answered.
“Well, it had to do with making that crooked thief an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
“Oh,” Mom said, as we scurried along Route 2 in the West Virginia Panhandle.
About the only other significant thing about that kickboxing tournament in Louisville was that Danny O’Brien was there, and he and my sister got together in the hallway again. This time, he had his arms all over her. I saw them go into some dark room together. I waited outside for a long time and hell, it was so long a time they were in there. I was eating pizza and drinking pop while I waited.
Anyhow, Jenny cheered like crazy when Danny O’Brien won his match. I felt silly about the whole thing. There wasn’t hardly anyone in the stands to watch the ten fights, and who really cared about Danny O’Brien except for my horny sister, anyhow? Heck, after the fight, Danny didn’t even come up into the stands to watch the last few fights with Jenny. He stayed in the locker room most of the night and when we were beginning to tear down the ring, I spotted Danny with another girl, a little blonde who looked to be a lot cuter than my sister. But I didn’t tell Jenny about the blonde and I didn’t tell my I knew about her and Danny spending time in that dark room beside the concession stand, either.
* * *
“We’ve made over two grand in just a few weeks, baby,” Dad told Mom as he patted her leg as we were driving into Newell, West Virginia, at the top of the Panhandle.
Dad’s favorite radio station, WDVE, was crackling over the truck’s stereo speakers. A song by about being a stranger was playing: “People are strange when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted. . .”
It sounded like the guy who was singing the song went through a lot of hard times. I felt, sitting there in that truck, about the way he felt when he sang that lonely song.
During the trip home, Mom didn’t say much. She just listened to Dad.
“It sure beats picking potatoes,” he said.
“What I’d like to know is how are we going to get rid of that ugly old auger,” she answered, rather scornfully.
Then they both laughed. First their laughs were very soft. But then they laughed harder and harder. Finally, they kissed.
I sort of wish Tommy and Jenny saw this, but they were both asleep.
* * *
Summer turned to fall. Fall turned to winter, and then spring came roaring like a tiger. Kickboxing season really starts kicking when the leaves turn brown and it doesn’t stop kicking until they turn green again. We were on the road every weekend and we went to tournaments all over — from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, up to New York City and down to the Carolinas and even as far south as Atlanta. On the long trips, sometimes Dad would call in sick two, and as many as three days a week to his weld shop. Mom didn’t like this but Dad explained that setting up the ring for some knuckleheaded kickboxing promoter and tearing it down a couple hours later, after 10 or 12 fights, sometimes accounted for twice his one-week pay.
“Trudy, if you think small you’re gonna’ be small,” he told her.
“But welding’s your job, Andy,” she answered.
“Well, pretty soon my full-time job is going to be a kickboxing ring supplier,” he answered.
“The day you do that is the day I get a job cutting hair,” she answered.
Dad didn’t say anything, he just drove through Kentucky on his way back from The Battle of Raleigh, which was such an aggravating trip for us all it made me sad to be alive.
Dad got into another long argument with the kickboxing promoter and we spent twelve hours in the rain during the trip from Raleigh back to western Pennsylvania. About the only good thing about the trip was that Danny O’Brien wasn’t there. By October and November, Danny was really starting to get on my nerves. By February, I hated Danny O’Brien. One time, he hit my sister hard, right on the face. When Dad asked Jenny how she got a black eye and a bruised lip, Jenny said she fell in the stands. That was the worst trip we ever took, and it was one of the shortest, too. It was the Johnstown Flying Dragon Kickboxing Extravaganza in mid-March and the darned thing lasted until two in the morning. There were thirty fights that night. Most of them were real sleepers, too.
“I can fight better than those guys,” I told Dad on our way back from that central Pennsylvania kickboxing thing.
“That Johnstown tournament didn’t leave much for talent,” he answered.
“Dad, can I take karate?”
“The way we’re on the road, you’re hardly making it to school,” he answered.
“Yeah, but Dad, I’m around karate tournaments so much I might as well compete in them,” I said.
“Tournaments take money, Gary. Fifty bucks a pop. Then, Tommy and Jenny are going to want to take karate, too.”
“Ah, you don’t want me to do good.”
“This spring, you kids and your mom are going to stay home. You need to make it to school. I’m going to hire a guy to help me with these trips. Maybe then you can take karate, but I doubt it. You’re way too fat for karate.”
“But Dad, karate can help slim me down. Anyhow, we like going with you.”
“Yeah, I know you do, but it seems like we’re on the road for most of the week anymore. You kids need to make it to school and your mom needs a home life,” he answered.
I didn’t ask him no more questions. I just kept watching him drive that truck through the dark night.
It seems about the only place I see Dad anymore is driving that truck.
* * *
It was a bad day the day Dad got fired from his welding job. Mom sobbed so hard she sounded like a bellowing cow. Jenny went to the corner store and bought the old man a twelve pack. I asked Dad if he was going to keep being a karate ring supplier. He didn’t answer.
“Trudy, you git outta that cellar and come on up here. Quit crying, honey. This ain’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of the new one. As long as there’s kickboxing, we’ll all eat and have a roof over our heads,” he yelled from the table, sucking down a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“You’re a real nut, Andy Sanders!” Mom screamed. “For almost twenty years you’ve worked in that weld shop and you threw it all away for some rotten monsters that kick and punch each other!”
“Jenny, take your ma down a beer,” Dad told my sister.
“I don’t want any beer, dammit!” Mom screamed. “I want you to get on that phone and call Buzz Bergholtz and ask him for your job back!”
“Babe, what did I tell you a long time ago? If you think small, you’re gonna’ be small. We’ve made thirty or forty thousand with that stupid ring. Do you think I’m gonna’ kick a gift horse in its mouth!” he said, calmly, but with steel hard tension, as he sucked down another beer.
“Well if you don’t call Buzz, I will,” she answered.
“And if you get my job back, you better learn to spot weld,” he answered, “because you’re gonna’ be in the weld shop and I’m gonna’ be a traveling man. Yeah, I’ll be a regular Travelin’ Jones. `Jest like that song says.”
“Go to hell!” she screamed from the basement.
Jenny scurried down the steps with a beer. There was a silence down there and then I heard the bottle smash.
“You just go to hell, Andy Sanders!” Mom screamed.
I thought the whole house was going to fall down. Honest, I did.
* * *
I remember the first time Danny O’Brien talked to me.
He arrogantly swaggered over to me, near the concession stands of the Battle of Steubenville and put his muscular arm around my flabby little shoulders. His hands were taped up with white tape that smelled like a hospital. His lip was cut. His shaggy brown hair looked like it needed a good washing.
“So Jenny’s told me a lot about you,” he said.
“What’s she saying?” I asked.
“Normal stuff. She caught you with that dirty book when you was–”
“Now let’s not get into that. That’s not true. She’s tellin’ lies,” I blurted.
“On the defensive, huh? It must be true,” he answered.
“I don’t have no dirty book.”
Your sister really should be in a dirty book. She’s got a really hot bod,” he snorted.
“Don’t talk about my sister that way,” I said, feeling a god awful pain inside. The little kickboxer within me was starting to get furious.
“You be a good boy and keep your hands away from your crotch,” he said.
I watched him walk away. By the time he was turning the corner and I was finishing my hot dog, I thought I’d let him know something.
“Danny,” I yelled.
He kept walking.
“Danny,” I yelled louder.
He turned. The muscles in his chest looked like iron forgings.
“Danny, you know when you’re out in the ring slugging it out?” I yelled.
“Yeah,” he responded, fifty feet away in the crowded corridor.
“Well, Danny, I always cheer for the other guy.”
He got a sad look on his face and ducked into the locker room.
After I ate another hot dog and scarfed down a bag of potato chips, I went back into the stands to watch the kickboxing. Danny O’Brien was slated to fight the third fight and during that time, I was going to take another pizza and hot dog break. The promoter of the kickboxing event, a big jovial guy with a deep voice and glistening, onyx skin, met me in the hall as I walked back into the stands. He smiled at me and asked if I took karate.
“No. I’m just the son of the guy who sets up the ring,” I told him.
“You shore need to take some karate boy. Work off all that baby fat,” the promoter, Tyrone Henderson, said to me.
I walked back to the stands pinching my stomach. It seemed to get bigger and bigger all the time. Heck, but I like hot dogs and pizza and candy bars and ice cream and tacos. I like to stay up late and watch the sci-fi channel and eat popcorn that has so much butter on it that the delicious fluffy kernels feel like they’re soaked in motor oil. Anything greasy, that’s what I like.
What was I going to do, anyhow, lose weight and get a little girlfriend and treat her like that scumbucket Danny O’Brien treats my sister? Fat chance. I’ll get as fat as I want to get. Anyhow, Dad already told me I couldn’t take karate. And when he decides he’s against something, that’s it. But the way he was talking in the truck that time, I don’t know. I sounded like he might’a been for it, too. . . . That’s the only thing I’d want to do to work out — take karate. I’d never run or swim or play basketball or anything.
Anyhow, when I got back to the stands, it was just another fight. A fight like any other fight I’ve seen in oh, so many months. Heavyweights. This guy in the red trunks punches like crazy and knocks this guy in the white trunks on the floor. The guy in the white trunks stands up. The referee gives the guy in the white trunks a standing eight count. The referee lets them fight.
They finish out the first round.
Nothing happens the second round and they both look pretty good. Then halfway through the third round, the guy in the white trunks does a mean roundhouse kick and hits the guy in the red trunks in the head. Like he really needs to get more licks in, the guy in the white trunks nails the guy in the red trunks with a backfist and a corkscrew punch as the guy in the red trunks is falling to the floor. The guy in the red trunks hits the floor like a bag of cement and just lays there. Right then, the guy in the white trunks starts jumping around the ring like he’s Rocky Balboa or something. All we need to hear is that stupid Rocky song — Da Da Da-da-da Da-da-da Da-da-da — that’s a real famous song and I’m sure you’ve heard it. They play it in Rocky, you know, Sylvester Stalone’s first movie. The one that made him famous. I saw it about eight times. I love that movie. I always eat a lot of popcorn when I watch it. Yo Adrian, Yo Adrian . . . .
Anyhow, some really sweet-looking, little blonde chick in a black tuxedoed jacket and miniskirt jumps in the ring and gives the guy in the white trunks a big plaque that looks so fancy it should be hanging on some old stone wall in some castle in England. Just as the pretty girl’s giving the guy in the white trunks his plaque, the trainer for the guy in the red trunks is picking his boy off the floor like doggy do-do. The poor fighter rises, all bloody and miserable, and the trainer and a few helpers get the guy out of the ring by carrying him like a big, ugly bag of bloody red potatoes.
By the way, the guy in the white trunks was named Ricky Lopez and the guy in the red trunks, poor knucklehead, was named Johnny Martin. I know by looking at the program, but to me, they’re nothing more than some guy in white trunks and some guy in red trunks. That’s all I really want to know. And by tomorrow, I’ll forget what color trunks they were wearing. It’s fun to see where these fighters come from, though. Ricky Lopez is from the Bronx, New York (the Bronx must be near Buffalo because Bronx sounds like the name of a really mean looking Buffalo), and Johnny Martin is from Youngstown, Ohio, right around the corner from where I live.
Something told me that the guy from the Bronx would win. I don’t know what, but that name. . . the Bronx, sounds like a really bad city to be from — it’s some kind of a notorious kind of place to be, that Bronx. . . And besides, he was a Mexican or a Puerto Rican fighter and they always seem to do well, from all the matches I’ve seen, anyhow. By now, I’ve seen quite a few, you know.
The second fight was kind of boring. A real sleeper, in other words. Sure, there was a lot of kicking and punching but there wasn’t any blood spilled or knockdowns or good licks, like a hard, swift kick to the head, and a hard smack or two when the other guy’s heading for the floor (like Lopez did to Martin in the first fight). It was a clean fight. A good fight. The judges decided a guy in red, white and blue trunks won by a close decision.
This decision was decided by four judges who sat together at a table at ringside. They were all fourth degree black belts and above. When the loser left the ring, this opponent, a guy in black trunks, kicked one of the corner posts and screamed something. Huh, that was the best part of the fight, except for the girl in the miniskirt and tuxedo jacket who gave the guy in the red, white and blue trunks another fancy plaque. That girl was cute. A lot cuter than my sister, that’s for sure.
Then, Danny O’Brien fought.
Danny entered the ring by jogging in from the dark corners of the huge gymnasium. He wore a hooded black, satin robe with a skull and crossbones interwoven in the back of the strange looking garment. Danny carried a scythe like the grim reaper. His trainer and three helpers assisted him in the trip from the locker room to the ring. A song by AC/DC, “Highway to Hell,” blared and cracked from the cheap speakers in the gymnasium. Heck, it was nauseating. It sounded just like a cheap transistor radio played full blast right against my ear.
After I witnessed this grand entrance, how could I take a pizza and hot dog break?
Danny’s opponent’s entrance was much more subdued. This opponent, a chump from Elyria, Ohio, named Robbie Robinson, entered the ring with a manager and one helper. No grand theatrics here — Robbie Robinson just wore a shiny red jacket. He didn’t even play any music over the intercom speakers. Heck, every fighter played music, most of the time they played that Rocky song when they were on their way to the ring from the locker room; you know, that song that goes like this: Da Da Da-da-da Da-da-da Da-da-da.
The center judge had the two fighters met in the middle, shook hands, and then, started fighting. Right away, Robinson was all over Danny O’Brien like a mean coyote. He cracked him several times in a row and Danny’s head just kept popping back, and popping back, and wham, snapping back. . . .
Then, Robinson did a really mean roundhouse kick that caught Danny right in the head and Danny fell to the floor like Martin hit the deck in the first round. We waited for Danny to get up. Danny never got up. We waited some more. Not a sound came from that gymnasium. I felt a little sick. I really thought Danny was dead. The referee called in the physician, who got ringside seats for volunteering to be the official doctor of these kickboxing events. The physician knelt over Danny’s limp body. The doctor put his head down, to see if Danny was breathing.
Then something happened that I’ll never forget.
Danny leaped up into the air and knocked the physician clear across the ring with the swift, powerful, upward thrust of his torso. Then, Danny did a spinning kick and caught Robbie Robinson right in the jaw. Robinson flew across the ring like a bullet. Robinson’s body shot through the ropes and landed on a table in the audience.
“You’re disqualified!” the referee yelled to Danny.
All of the sudden, Robinson’s trainer and helper ran over to Danny and started punching and kicking him. Danny covered his head with his hands and was pummeled by the trainer, obviously a seasoned martial artist, and the younger helper (who didn’t look like too shabby of a karate guy, either), got a few licks in.
A mad rush went into the ring.
Within thirty seconds, there must have been forty or fifty people in the ring, fighting like cornered rats. This mass fight continued for a good five minutes. Finally, a couple police entered the roped, elevated stage and broke up the fight. Anyone who hit one of the big men in blue was manhandled and sometimes, even hit with a nightstick. One of the cops was doing spinning kicks, backhands and karate chops like he was in some The Best of the Best karate movie series. A lot of cops took up the Asian-spawned blood sports. I guess they need them like the time at hand here.
Danny was crawling through the ropes when one of the policemen grabbed him, put him in handcuffs and led him out of the ring. My sister found out the next day by contacting the Steubenville Police Department that Danny was arrested for Inciting a Riot, Assault & Battery, and Disorderly Conduct.
Anyhow, we got an early start on tearing down the ring because after the third round, the kickboxing matches were called off. Dad found that the ring had been damaged — some of the ropes looked like they were mangled pretty badly and one of the poles was bent. The floor, once so even you could play a game of pool on top of it, now had some dips and crevices.
Dad didn’t like it at all.
Neither did Mom, Jenny, Tommy or me. See, Dad was in a nasty, lowdown mood the whole trip home, and even hit the dash of that beat up truck four or five times with his right fist.
Dad told my sister if he ever caught her in the truck with Danny O’Brien again, he’d kill them both. Dad, you see, caught my sister and Danny in the back seat of our truck’s cab at The Battle of Raleigh. What they were doing, who knows. Dad never told any of us. He sort of seemed to be ashamed of it all.
We went to more kickboxing tournaments. Things got worse and worse.
After the night Danny O’Brien incited the riot, Dad’s kickboxing ring was so badly damaged that dips and crevices in the ring caused bad fighting conditions; sort of like riding down a bumpy road with bad tires. We went to a tournament in Dayton, Ohio, where a celebrated fighter sprained his ankle badly in the ring. This guy, some kind of karate champion or another, stuck his foot in a hole in the ring and twisted his ankle around. We heard later he had to have surgery. Dad was worried about getting sued, and since the old man didn’t carry any liability insurance, he was really concerned about losing everything he ever worked for.
But Dad patched up the hole and went to a few more tournaments after the Dayton fiasco, and at a tournament in some small town in Virginia, a corner pole fell off the ring and slammed onto a table where the judges were sitting. The kickboxing was postponed for a good hour as the judges and a few kickboxers put that pole in place. Later, when Dad was tearing down the ring, he found those judges and kickboxers made a big hole in the side of the ring to prop the pole up. Dad was really angry.
“These people don’t care about anything. You work hard and some little bastard like Danny O’Brien ruins everything for you,” Dad told Mom on the way home.
“I heard there’s a job open at the plastic extrusion plant in Sharon,” Mom said to Dad.
“Yeah, babe, this kickboxing is getting old. I didn’t even get a paycheck this time.”
“There’s a job open at Cherri’s Famous Cuts, too. Cherri herself told me at the grocery store the other day,” Mom said.
“I don’t want you going to work. Who’s gonna’ raise the kids?” Dad said.
“For most of the last year, thanks to kickboxing, the kids are raising themselves,” she replied.
* * *
It’s nice sleeping in on a Saturday and waking up at noon and watching the snow fall from my bedroom window. More than a year after we started the kickboxing grind, we’ve been off the road for a couple months now. It’s nice not being in some god-knows-where city sitting up in the stands waiting for the kickboxing to start.
The snow falls in delicious little flakes, so softly, so softly. I wonder if those snowflakes make a little noise when they hit the ground. Tommy says they do. He said he hears them.
Since we quit the kickboxing scene, my grades at school have improved. I’ve gone from all C’s, D’s and F’s to all B’s and C’s. I’ve also trimmed down a bit — I’ve lost some weight and I’m into a smaller pants size. Mom says it’s because I’m eating more nutritious foods. Dad says I’ve lost weight because I have some kind of virus. I don’t believe him. I feel better than ever.
That kickboxing ring is sitting in the back yard in a big heap. Right now, it’s covered with a couple of inches of snow. Mom keeps bugging Dad to move that thing out of there and take it to the dump. Dad doesn’t want to part with it. He keeps telling Mom he wants to keep it around. He thinks he can fix it. I don’t think so. It’s caved in so much that it looks like some big dinosaur sat his paw in the middle of it.
Just the other day, I heard Jenny say that her rabbit died. I didn’t even know she had a rabbit. Boy, she’s really been depressed lately. Mom and Dad are upset, too. Danny O’Brien must have killed that rabbit. All Dad does is curse Danny’s when he’s home. We all like to see him go to work. He’s not around here then. Yeah, the old man’s out of the house a lot. I like it better when he’s gone. So does Mom and Jenny and Tommy.
See, Dad got a pretty good job at this small steel mill in Farrell and he’s working a lot of overtime. In fact, he’s gone today. He doesn’t really like working Saturdays at the mill, though.
Mom’s really happy Dad got a real job. And she’s even happier that she’s working for Cherri cutting hair part-time. Dad gives her a hard time about working but it seems that Mom doesn’t even listen to him anymore. I’m glad for her. She seemed so depressed being his kickboxing tag-along. I think she deserves a black belt for all the crazy nonsense Dad’s put her through in the last year or so.
The snow falls in delicious little flakes outside my bedroom window.
I yawn and feel a tiger inside my chest. Maybe it’s that little kickboxer within. I feel good watching the snow fall. Tommy says the falling snow makes noise. He says he hears it. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. Anyway, I enjoy the view outside even though the back yard’s cluttered up with the parts from that kickboxing ring. But you can’t see the ring, anyhow, because it’s covered with snow. It looks good that way, all busted up and covered with about a half foot of those flakes. I don’t know what I want to do. Maybe I’ll go up to my friend’s house and watch some cartoons. Maybe I’ll go to the dojo today. Next week, I test for yellow belt. Sensei says someday I’ll make a good kickboxer. I say not. I’m just happy I’ve trimmed down a bit and learned a few neat tricks. I don’t hate karate anymore. I kind of like it. I might even compete in a karate tournament soon. I don’t know if I can win a trophy, though. To tell you the truth, I really don’t want one, anyhow. . . .