Some guys were ready to fight in an instant, about anything. Cliff's father called them the "goers." Goers, he said, were always ready to go.
"Go where?" Cliff asked.
"No, not to some place," Cliff's father told him, “just go. Go at it, go to it—”
"OK,” Cliff said, “but go to what?"
“Are you listening to me?” his father said. “To it. It. It.”
He provided examples of what it could be.
You say something about a guy's mother’s looks, his father's war record, the size of his dog's balls, next thing you know, pow.
"That’s it,” Cliff’s father said, “you understand what I'm telling you? It could be anything, and anything could be it."
"Ah,” Cliff said, “so like Pete Pasco."
"Pete Pasco,” Cliff repeated. “He must be a goer."
Cliff's father leaned closer. "Oh yeah?"
"Once a kid said something about his bike."
"And what did Pete Pasco do about it?"
"He broke the kid’s nose."
"That's a goer."
Cliff said, "He's always ready to go."
"What, he go at you?"
"But you're afraid he might?"
"I don't know."
"Hey, you are or you aren't."
Cliff said, “A little I guess. I don't know. "
"Is he your size?"
“Of course good. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You don’t know that?”
“I do, but—”
“No buts,” his father said. “Bigger means easier.”
"You go straight for his throat, see?" He lifted his chin and tapped at his Adam's apple. "He's your size, you gotta wait for that shot, go in with the upper cut. You miss with the upper cut, maybe you catch his jaw – if you’re lucky. But when the guy’s bigger, pow, straight shot from the shoulder right to the wind pipe, you got me? You crush that like it’s a roll of toilet paper and bing, bang, boom, it's taps for the son of a bitch."
Cliff's mother put the paper down.
"Should you be telling him that?"
"Telling him what?"
‘This nonsense you're talking."
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't want Cliff in fights."
"I don't want him in fights, either. Hey,” he told Cliff, “you don't fight, you understand me?"
"So what are you telling him?"
"What are you, deaf over there? Did you not just hear what he said about this punk..." He snapped his fingers.
"Pasco," Cliff said.
“Pasco. He's a goer."
"But Cliff doesn't have to be."
"Cliff has to defend himself."
"He shouldn't get in fights."
"He shouldn't look for fights. He shouldn't start fights. But he will be in fights. Boys fight. The world we live in, you go, or you’re gone."
"The world is what you make it."
"Oh, what are you, some kind of Jesuit?"
"I'm his mother."
"And I don't want my son getting into fights."
"He's my son too. And this is where you get the kid all confused. He thinks there's two worlds. The one that's in your head—the one you keep shooting your yap off—and then this one. This table, this fist, and this goer punk named..."
“Pasco. And I'm saying this Pasco punk starts up with a boy of mine, then my boy better see that he finishes it."
Cliff’s mother turned to Cliff. "This Pasco”—she took a breath—“boy," she said, "is he in your grade?"
"Has he ever bothered you?"
"How often do you see him?"
"Do you see what I'm saying?" she said to Cliff's father. "You gotta listen to him, get the full picture, then offer advice. Don’t just talk at him like he's in imminent danger."
"Imminent danger," Cliff's father said. “Wow.” He whistled. "That's a big word: imminent danger."
"Actually," she said, "it's two words."
"Two words. You hear that, Cliffy? Your mother knows two big words. Like she's on channel thirteen or something."
“You should watch channel thirteen,” she said. “It might do you some good.”
“I do watch channel thirteen.”
“You don’t watch channel thirteen.”
He pushed back from the table. “You watch this,” he said. “Come on, Cliffy, downstairs. Speed bag, body bag. I’ll show you a few tricks.”
Downstairs, he blurred the speed bag with flurries of fists, back-fists, and elbows. Triplets, paradiddles, volleys of cross-rhythms.
“Imagine doing this to a guy’s face,” he said. “Huh? You’d have to hold him up by the collar just so you could hit him again. By the time you’re finished, his face is tomato soup.”
He nudged a stool under the bag.
“Now you,” he said. “Go.”
Cliff stepped up on the stool. He hit the bag once, twice, missed it. Once, twice, missed it. Where he aimed, it wasn’t.
“Like I showed you,” his father said, “pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa, pow!”
Cliff tried to coordinate his fists with the sounds in his head, but the sounds went so fast and his fists so slow. Every third punch, the ball hook banged into the swivel-base.
His father winced. “Didn’t you pay attention?”
“It won’t return to the same spot,” Cliff said.
“Neither does a guy’s face. You want to hit him, you got to find him.”
“I’m trying,” Cliff said. “I’m trying.”
On the other side of the basement, his father stacked Barbra Streisand records on the turntable. “People,” “He Touched Me,” “Why Did I Choose You.”
“Hey,” he told Cliff, “do something quiet.”
He spread out on the weight bench, hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. In less than a song, he was snoring.
Cliff slipped upstairs. His mother was on the phone with Mrs. Berendt across the street. Cliff turned on the TV.
A few days later, he saw Pete Pasco at the bike racks.
“Hey, Pasco,” Cliff said.
Pete Pasco turned around. He wore a paisley shirt with a Nehru collar and tight black pants.
“You talking to me?”
Cliff said, “Your dog has small balls.”
Pete Pasco laughed. “What?”
“Your dog,” Cliff said. “It’s got small balls.”
Pete Pasco pulled his Stingray from the rack.
“My dog’s female,” he said. “What are you, some new kid?”
“I’m the kid telling you your dog’s got small balls.”
“Yeah?” Pete Pasco shrugged. “Maybe I’ll take her to the vet.”
He pushed his bike toward the drive.
Cliff said, “What, you’re not gonna fight me?”
“Fight you?” Pasco said, “Kid, ain’t you heard?”
“Fighting’s for greasers.” He flashed the peace sign. “What the world needs now is love.”
Cliff said, “Love?”
Pete Pasco swung a leg over the banana seat.
“Listen, kid,” Pete Pasco said, “I can tell you’re pretty cool for your age and shit, but I got places to go, right?”
He patched out in the sand, popped a wheelie, and held it for half the drive.
Cliff took the long way home, on narrow paths through the woods. He had the feeling that he’d been born a long, long time ago.
Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. His chapbook, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse (Finishing Line Press), appeared in October 2015. "Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire," a full-length collection, will appear in Winter 2016 (Winter Goose). He teaches in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University.