On a balmy Tuesday evening, Jude, a thick bodied, vanilla skinned North Easterner traveled to the Gonzales’ condo on the outskirts of the barrio along Pacific Ave. The Long Term substitute frequently went there to use John’s computer and discuss all things Hollywood related. He pressed the doorbell beside the bent-framed security door, leading to the building. Ramon, John’s short, bald Mexican roommate, escorted him up to Gonzales’ spot, through the maze-like entrance. Apartment windows and doors seemed to surround them as they strolled through the cemented courtyard. Every available space had black metal numbers or a dying potted plant hanging on the wall. With the exception of the fading rhythm of Mariachi music played from a half-opened windows the space was silent as a morgue.
Ramon opened the door and they entered dragging their feet through the brown shag carpeting. Jude grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge as the roommate informed him John was at the gym with his brothers. Jude asked him for permission to use the computer and he reluctantly relented. Sub work was sporadic at that time of the school year and without his own PC, he needed to check email daily, somewhere. Moments later, while going through the inbox the door sprung open and Dubs strutted in, shirtless, flaunting his tanned Adonis-like body. He declared that he had been there earlier in the day, uploading pictures of some lady-friends from the gym. He walked to the computer and glared over the substitute’s shoulder. Jude concluded business, closing out the Yahoo page.
“What do you want man?” Jude sneered, annoyed.
“Nothing, Jay. I just want ya’ll to check something out.”
He immediately high-jacked the keyboard and began to hunt n’ peck with his muscle-bound index fingers. A slight rage began to twinge inside Jude as he backed away. He didn’t desire the tactics, nor his friend’s combative ways. The two had been rivals since the transplant from New Jersey found himself in the fighter’s hometown. They battled about everything from sports to women, nothing was off limits.
“I want you guys to see this girl,” he said in a sickly-sang cadence.
Ramon came over and joined in; his shirt was missing as well. Dub’s typed on one final key stroke and a picture popped up of a pony-tailed, slightly pretty girl in a sports-bra top and Lycra shorts. He gazed upon her hungrily as Jude leaned in over his shoulder, enjoying a sip of soda.
“She’s not all that pretty to me,” the sub stated coldly.
Dub’s head snapped around violently as though he caught a hard right.
“I think that would be called hating, Jay.” He rumbled.
Jude laughed sarcastically, pointing to the screen. ” I have dated better than that. Flower is better looking than that and I stole her from you!”
The battle words were spouted and the line had been crossed. They had had a truce before, promising in the verbal bylines: not to mention the little, blonde, Latina, she-demon’s name. During the summer there was a three-way love triangle that ended badly for all parties. But the green-eyed devil within couldn’t resist. The first shot was fired and the battle wouldn’t end with words. It was brains verses brawn with the referee being pride. Dubs stood to his feet quickly from the second-hand office swivel chair, a sculptured statue with an ego the size of Nevada.
“Naw, man. I gave her to you!” he insisted.
“I disagree. She thought I was more man” the smile on his sun dried face belying the cyclone of building nerves in his gut,
“I took her.”
Dubs made a stiffened football passing motion with his muscled arm, in case the teacher needed a visual, “I passed her to you!”
Ramon stepped between the forever micro-sized diplomat. They willingly went to the separate corners of the apartment, but an enraged Dubs stalked the room like a manic panther. Jude nervously sipped his lukewarm cola, watching carefully. The granite boxer was quite accomplished with his hands. Quick and deadly, Dubs had been boxing since age nineteen. The teacher’s words were big, but he didn’t want to taste the flesh at the end of the pugilist’s knuckles. Ramon pulled out a bottle of vodka from the Gonzales’ bar. He raised it in the air like the white dove of peace.
“Come on fellas, let’s have a drink and calm down.”
The two grabbed glass goblets from the cabinet, but the tension grew thicker. Ramon poured Jude a swig, but Dubs forcefully took his own. Jude chased his with juice and watched as Dubs’ went straight to the head.
“You know Jay, you got a big mouth.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jude responded, “but, I don’t think you’re man enough to close it.”
“I think you’re all talk!” Dubs’ body began to swell up as he approached him.
The Substitute was all in. “Let me see what’s up!”
Jude wanted no piece of him. The teacher didn’t think he was ready to test it, not yet. His nerves got the best of him and Dub’s instinctively took predatory notice of the fear. Jude’s frantic vision eyed a ballpoint pen sitting on the bar within reach. Dubs balled his hands up to his stone face and made a quick move towards him. The teacher’s right arm flashed outward to the bar and stabbed at his taut pec with the Bic. Now, motionless, the three of them stood wide-eyed, watching the clear plastic tube stick from his chest for a couple seconds, as though part of some bad summer stock Shakespearean scene.
The pen fell away and Dubs looked up at him as if Jude was some annoying, little boy. His heart stopped beating normally and went to supersonic. Surprisingly, Dubs walked off toward the sofa, and sat, his entire head and shoulders beaming red through the coats of self-tanner. He knew the fighter’s jab altered mind was plotting and counting the future punches he would throw into the subs face.
“Come on guys. Stop it!” Ramon plead.
Cautiously, Jude followed Dubs over to the sofa. He planned to neutralize the space between them, plus, the Russian water in his blood stream spurred the teacher toward him with it’s drunken whisper. Yes, the drink had taken effect. Most men become warriors once on the spirits, ready to fight at the drop of a dime.
Jude walked past the sofa to the other side of the room. He grew tired of the boxer and was sick of his stunt. Tired of his antics, mad at his physique that he threw in his face every time they came together. He was three inches taller and probably fifteen pounds heavier, but no pro boxer. It didn’t matter though, Jude had the clear “potato death” in his gullet and wasn’t going to back down.
Dubs suddenly jerked upright and mumbled about taking a piss. As he plodded past, he shouldered the substitute. Jude returned the shove with both hands, hardly moving him. He returned a powerful push, swiftly dropping Jude to the ground. Anger overtook reason as he jumped up and shoved Dubs backward into sofa cushions and jumped on him. They tumbled end-over-end and landed between the couch and coffee table. Dubs tried to struggle, but Jude was surprisingly strong and big for him to handle. The floor wasn’t a smaller man’s world. Jude got behind, putting him in a naked choke hold and pulled back.
The fighter reached behind, shooting his fists upward, but it was futile, the teacher had him in the death grip. Jude yanked on his neck as he spit and struggled for air.
“Stop it. I’m calling the police!” Ramon bellowed as he tried to break them up like two fighting dogs. He received an errant punch in the head for his troubles, which backed him up five paces. Jude pulled back harder on Dubs and heard all his air escaping as his arms went limp. The teacher’s mind and heart then met and decided his rival would live.
Ramon seized his arm and Jude allowed him to break the grip. He jumped to his feet while Dubs recovered, rubbing his bullish neck.
“Jay, you have to go.” Ramon’s right hand shook nervously, pointing to the apartment door.
Dubs stared at Jude, as a bull would a red cape.
“If you want some more, we can finish this in an alley,” The sub croaked, his voice breaking with adrenaline. Jude left the building and walked back to his own low-rent bungalow. Deep down inside, knowing it wasn’t over and figuring the madness had just started. He went to his small, dark bedroom with the California King and slept the night away.
He woke the next morning around 7:00 am. No phone call came from Long Beach Unified for the fourth day in a row. He fitfully went back to sleep, hopelessness was his new pillow. He arose again at one o’clock in the afternoon and slavishly dressed for the mid-day, nowhere walk. The sometimes teacher exited the bungalow and headed to the Pacific Ocean on his daily routine which included a five mile hike.
The sparkle on the water and rhythm of the tides always seemed to rejuvenate him. Jude crossed the street and waited at the corner to cross again when, suddenly Dubs’ red Lexus zoomed by with his little Samoan hybrid girlfriend in the passenger seat. He stared at him, his face filled with anger, while pulling alongside the curb at the red light. Jude shot him a cocky grin, grabbing his crotch at the same time. That was the ultimate immature sign of disrespect. Without flinching, he made the quick left, his rehabbed Lexus speeding down the road.
The substitute continued on his trek, dragging depression along, like a great sack attached to his soul. He made it to Cabrillo Beach to stare at the sea, trying to search her water for a glimmer of hope and saw none. He sat on the beach staring beyond the three o’clock sun that hung just above the brush-covered hills of Catalina Island and wondered what the Japanese were doing that day. He wondered if there was a Japanese guy, at that very moment, staring across the Pacific looking for him, wondering what the guy in the harbor city was doing. Probably not, his addle mind concluded. With the blue, sparkling water at his blister filled feet and the beautiful sun warming the beach from the sky, depression still kept him within its icy grip, like a vice.
Jude felt his eyes water and mouth dry out. Where had he gone wrong his spirit asked the mind? The body was left out of this conversation. There was no answer; just the sound of the water slapping the sand as the sea birds mocked him with happy tunes. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be a Gull, flying over the sea laughing with the rest of his little winged friends? Ha, Ha, Ha. Ha, Ha, Ha. Jude felt something behind him, close. Yes, right on schedule, here came Dubs. The fighter turned slightly, he looked so small from that distance, but he would be bigger. He knew last night bled into today.
He stood and turned, facing the oncoming foe. Dubs walked quickly, with hard forceful steps digging into the sand. He was on a mission and Jude was part of it. He reached the teacher in no time and stood in his face. The sub noticed the fighter already had a mouthpiece secured in his right hand.
“We’re going to settle this,” Dubs snarled.
“Fuck you,” Jude replied, exhausted.
He shot the mouthpiece past his lips and quickly threw a body shot that hit him, weakly, in the gut.
Instinctively, Jude feinted with a left jab and threw a hard right towards his already gnarled nose. It felt as if his hand was traveling in slow motion. He moved to the side and ducked it by several feet. At that moment Jude knew he had bitten off more than his big, foul mouth could chew. Pain was on its way.
Dub’s threw a hard over-hand right that caught him above the eyes. It didn’t hurt, but the speed stunned him. The teacher returned a left, trying to create distance, which hit the boxer behind the ear. Dubs stumbled backwards. Jude headed towards him; it was then or never. He looked up at the substitute and pointed to his eye. Moisture and wetness ran down Jude’s face. He took his thin fingers and rubbed the area cautiously. The digits came back colored with watery red.
The lifeguard screamed down from the railing of his worn-wooden station. It was like they had been fighting in a soundless vortex. When snapped back to reality, they were surrounded by families fishing off the surf and tourists frolicking in the oily, harbor water.
“Knock it the fuck off. I called the cops!” The slightly pudgy lifeguard screeched from his perch.
L.A.’s Finest were on their way. Dubs shrugged, as if the end of recess had come too soon, and ran off toward the parking lot, ditching the mouthpiece behind a rock. Jude strode to the driveway, sat on the roadside curb holding his shirt above the injured eye. No sense running, the police would find them. He rested on the curb, breathing in the sea air mixed with the scent from his own blood. Dubs also waited.
The cop came minutes later and separated them to opposite ends of their black and white. They asked if they wanted to press charges on each other; both declined, so they chalked it up to Mutual Combat, leaving him to bleed into a white t-shirt.
Jude lumbered home with a damaged forehead and a greater understanding of the law. His head throbbed as he made his way along the pathway, the sun beating down on the back of his meaty neck. Dubs pulled beside him. The boxer’s eyes screamed remorse,
“Come on, let me give you a ride to the hospital. I’ll take you to Carson.”
There was no way he was going to Carson to sit with the homeless in the free clinic for ten hours. If the teacher would go to the hospital, it would be in Pedro to get stitched. He gave him a nod and Dubs sped away. He made it to his car and drove up the hill to the hospital. Jude sat in the simple, white waiting room among the pregnant teens and flatulent elderly. He was tired, and bored, until his eyes caught on a framed poster copy of an ocean sunset. The kind one might find in any waiting room across the city. As he stared long at the faded, gold-colored, horizon, he suddenly thought to himself, ‘I wonder how the Japanese scored that round?’
David is also the author of the novel Exodus from the River Town, published by Shook Up publishing.
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