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I was lifting weights in the Sheldon Jackson College Gymnasium on a Friday night in early October when I heard the sound coming down the hall.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
The weight room was on the second floor of the SJ gym, in an upstairs loft overlooking a basketball court. Long ago, the college had served as a boarding school and was named after an American missionary who’d come north to reform Native children after the Alaska Purchase. Now SJ had about a hundred students—some hippies, some Christians, some Native kids from the Interior—but few of them did much working out, so I usually had the place to myself.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
After a few more bench presses, I let the bar fall into the yoke. I did not particularly like lifting weights, but ever since I’d showed up in Sitka at the end of the summer—alone, by sea kayak, at the end of a cross-country road trip and a one-thousand-mile paddle north up the Inside Passage—working out was the only thing that filled my days with any kind of ritual. I was one year out of college, wandering through that shapeless in-between period of my early twenties when I wanted to become a man but didn’t know how to start. For the past month, I had been living in a basement apartment, working as an academic tutor for a tribal organization, having a first crack at life on my own. Lifting weights brought definition to my physical self when every other fact about who I was pulsed inside of me with furious uncertainty.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
I got up from the bench and followed the sound to a small room where several men were working out like boxers. In one corner, two Native boys followed each other under a bob-and-weave rope. In the opposite corner, two white men took turns hitting a heavy bag. In the middle of the room, a short man in a baseball cap and hooded sweatshirt held a pair of mitts for a shirtless redheaded boy whom I recognized from the high school. His name was Richie, and I often saw him wandering the halls as if lost in a foreign city.
“Six!” the man called out, and Richie attacked the mitts—Whack! Whack! Whack!—with three rights and three lefts. “Ten!” the man said, and Richie dove forward with more punches. They continued for thirty seconds or so, the man calling out combinations—“Right hand–hook–right hand!”—as Richie, shoulders and chest glistening with sweat, kept punching. Then the man said, “To the bell!” and Richie hit the mitts until a beeper sounded in the corner. “Push-ups! Twenty!” the man said, and everyone fell to the floor.
I remained in the doorway until the session was over, when all the fighters unwrapped their hands, dressed for the weather, and filed past me out the door.
The man who’d been holding the mitts stood in the middle of the room, stuffing helmets and gloves into a duffel bag. “You need something?”
I paused. “You ever take new guys on?”
The man shook his head. “Got two guys fighting Roughhouse in November and the high school boys training for amateurs this spring.” He looked over his shoulder. “We just don’t have a whole lot of room in here.”
I thanked the man, turned to leave.
“You ever do any fighting?” he called out behind me.
“Yes,” I lied. My senior year at Middlebury College, me and some guys from my dorm had read a few chapters of Nietzsche and watched Fight Club too many times and come to the bold conclusion that our luxurious liberal arts existence was turning us into overeducated, technology-obsessed boy-bots. In a small room above the tennis courts, we started working out like boxers, trying to imitate the men in the movie. We did lots of push-ups and sit-ups, hit an old heavy bag with our bare hands until our knuckles bled, always with our shirts off so that the girls who used the room for yoga class could witness our rapid Becoming. After a few weeks, we bought some boxing gloves, named ourselves the John Keats Club, and started fighting for real. This was in the late fall of 2001, and it is hard to say what larger forces compelled us to perform such theater of violence. By late winter, the John Keats Club had mostly run its course: my training partners, perhaps aware that their imminent delivery into the upper-middle classes of America would likely protect them from most kinds of physical danger, all quit. I continued training on my own. Some nights, I looked at the young man scowling back at me in the long mirrors on the wall, wondering what he wanted to know.
“You want to give it a shot?” the man said. He was on his toes now, flicking half punches. He’d pulled off his sweatshirt and removed his hat, so that he wore only a tank top and shorts. The man stood around five foot eight, with hair and skin about the same shade as mine. He looked like he might be Native or part white or Filipino—in a town like Sitka, where many people had mixed blood, it was hard to tell. Standing across from him, I was sure I held an advantage. At five eleven and a lean 190, I had inherited my father’s build. The rest of me—flat nose, full lips, small hands—came from my mother.
“Sure,” I said.
The man offered me a pair of gloves and a helmet. Then he traced a square of duct tape on the carpet. “That’s the ring,” he said, through his mouth guard. “But you don’t have to stay inside it.” Then he tapped a small plastic box in the corner. “Beeper’s set for three minutes.”
For several seconds, the man swayed in place, chin tucked into his chest, feet set, hands low, squinting at me beneath the padding of his helmet. I had no plan for how I was going to attack him, but I believed that somewhere inside me I possessed the power to beat him.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
A series of jabs—bouncing off my forehead in such quick succession that I could not tell the first punch from the third. Then a volley of harder punches—straight left hands that smashed into my nose, clubbed the side of my head, and drove me into the wall. I had never been hit like that before, but I did not experience the impact as pain. Instead, I felt as though the man’s punches were trying to tell me something, tapping out their message in code. As he slid away, I stalked after him, and swung for his head with a swooping left hand. But the punch found only air. Then I felt a dull ball of pain settle into a soft pocket of flesh beneath my ribs. The ball grew, traveled into my stomach, trickled down my legs, and pulled me to the floor. I tried to stay on my feet, but my knees buckled and I fell to all fours. Drops of blood from my nose dripped onto the carpet.
Above me, the man stood with one glove extended, the white knuckles stamped with small rose shapes. “You got any more?”
“Yeah,” I said. I took the man’s hand and came to my feet.
For the next two rounds, the beating continued: jabs off my nose and forehead, followed by thudding left hands. By then, my chin and chest were covered with blood and I was out of air and I had all but given up. Even when I could see his punches coming, I was too winded to move my head out of their way. But nothing in my brain told me to avoid the impact. Toward the end of the third round, I put up my gloves and charged the man, thinking I might be able to tackle him. But as I came forward, his fist split my elbows, clicking my jaw shut and snapping my head back. I stumbled to the wall, dropped my hands, waited for more. But the punches never came.
Copyright © 2019 by Jaed Coffin