The Karate Boys got their start in the aftershock of Ingrid Liddy’s big landing in Pine, two days after the snow finally let up that spring. Donna had booked a band for the Merc and made her special spaghetti dinner, an annual gesture meant to celebrate the first inkling of thaw. Restless from the long high-altitude winter, we came out in droves.
The boys, our collection of bachelors and misfits, were lined up at the bar when Ingrid walked in. Like the rest of us, they were surprised; but this surprise soon gave way to a kind of wide pleasure. They had been watching her through the windows of her house, the old Blondoe place—we all had—and the talk and the curiosity had reached a kind of hammered pitch.
The Blondoe place backed the canyon wall and was set high, and it had floor to ceiling windows. It afforded little privacy, which is why the Blondoes had decamped some time ago, leaving for the relative seclusion of suburban Denver. For a little over a week now, Ingrid had been treating the town to the intimate details of her life, her habits, her routines, parading back and forth in front of the window in various stages of dress. Sometimes underwear and T-shirt, sometimes a tiny tank top and pajama bottoms or hip huggers. Most of us were amused, but, as always, there was suspicion and wagging tongues and the usual wondering if she would last.
Ingrid was tall and hippy, like a woman born to hoses, and she announced herself to us with a wide, shit-eating grin, as if she’d just come home from a long absence. She wore a fringed jacket, Davey Crockett-style, and green crocodile-skin boots. It was some getup. But her jeans fit and were faded in all the right places, so we knew she wasn’t wearing an approximation of the cowboy west, like so many people passing through. We had heard from the postmistress that Ingrid had come from Washington, D.C., that she had worked for the president, and recluses and mistrusters of government whispered she was CIA and we’d better watch out, but most of us just let the curiosity burn a little longer and a little harder, and waited.
Ingrid walked right up to the bar, ordering a pitcher to pass around to empty glasses, and that made all of us like her immediately. People in Pine liked generosity and familiarity. And we had a way of instant kinship with one another, bound as we were between the narrow confines of the canyon walls. Plus, we liked to think that we were more understanding and more forgiving, more laid-back about people’s excesses and obsessions than bigger places. It was a philosophy born of survival and the sometimes uncomfortable closeness of small town living; when your community numbers in the low hundreds, it’s wise to just let a lot of things go.
The boys had cleared a path for Ingrid, but they ogled her outright.
“I’ll be damned,” said Rooster, gesturing from behind the bar as she approached, and in unison, the rest turned.
Jimmy looked up too. Later he would say he was watching the way the fringed followed her arms and the sides of her body, like small, thin birds that had been startled, then gathered. Jimmy was a poet of course, and maybe a little too tender for his own good. He built sailboats for a living. It was kind of a wild irrational thing to do in an arid land-locked state, but Pine was full of people with such notions. He spent his winters building one new sloop all the way up to the rafters of his double-high garage on upper Main, and then he’d put the boat on a trailer and pull it in the 4th of July parade, which for us was the first real event of the summer. After that, he’d deliver the boat and take the rest of the year off, spending a good deal of it leaned up against the bar at the Merc when he wasn’t down in Belize or Guatemala.
That winter had gone especially bad for Jimmy. His ex-wife had just married Howard Long, the mayor of Jamestown, a mountain town even funkier than ours, and he had been moping around, a little lonely. He had been leaning over his beer whispering poetically, saying that it was time to get himself good and drunk, that the winter had been terrible and cruel and that he was especially restless this year, waiting for the returning some to come back over the southern lip of the canyon wall, for the warm weather to unfreeze the sadness and inertia that lay heavily upon him. It was just winter blues, someone said, but Jimmy shook his head and said he had begun to think seriously of leaving the mountains, of living near the ocean on some beach, where he could hear the tide, where it seemed his life would be inexplicably easier without long winters and wood stoves, long-johns and tire chains and snow shoes, or the hide-and-seek sun.
It was in this state of mind that Ingrid appeared to Jimmy as some vision. Her easy gait and friendly manner pulled him from his stool, as if she were the antidote to every lonely night he’d spent since his wife had left him not quite two years before. He moved one step behind Rooster, both propelled by the weight of instinct and the kind of delicious urgency that precurses the possibility of copulation.
After the pitcher was empty, they started buying the beer and then asking Ingrid to dance, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the boys joined in, and the atmosphere in the Merc took on the kind of wild excess of the sort we all knew stamped it as a night to remember, one destined to go down in the history of Pine as legend because stories were what Pine was made of. In a town without television, it’s what most people did for entertainment.
The boys were born swillers, guys’ guys who were mostly, but not necessarily, single. Horse Maloney had been married for forty years and he hadn’t let that simple fact keep him from hitting on every woman in Pine—single or straight, married or gay.
The boys tended toward well-worn Levi’s or Wranglers and Carhart coveralls. They wore their hair in various stages of long—from well over the collar to down the back. All of them had beards. And they were strong and scruffy, laborers of some sort: plumbers and carpenters, fixers of things and doers of any odd job for money. Rooster and Jimmy shared a love of smooth, sanded wood and perfectly cut lumber. Jules was a grunt laborer, and Horse was a contractor, always building or buying or renovating something for a whole lot of cash. Davey, the strangest of the lot, lost three fingers to frostbite the winter he’d lived in a tent up top, and went all over town without shoes, summer or winter.
They were men used to causing a ruckus, and that night all of them made fools of themselves, swaggering and shimmying and shambling, overturning chairs and pints of beer, in a ridiculous attempt to outdo one another on the dance floor, swinging Ingrid in wild, electric circles while the rest of us watched.
Even then, it was clear she was a force to be reckoned with. And pretty soon, Ingrid commanded the dance floor, showing Rooster how to two-step like a real cowboy, easily maneuvering his slim body with her own. Horse broke in and started a Kentucky Reel, but then she was teaching all of them how to dirty dance and lambada as the band looped through grinders like “Mustang Sally” and “La Bamba.”
Fueled by the boys’ mating frenzy, the rest of us joined in. Women danced on bar stools and table tops, and Donna began refilling beer glasses from two pitchers she held above our heads as she shoved her way through the crowd. The tables were hauled outside and the whole restaurant became a dance floor. Donna circulated and returned to the tap for more beer and then came around again and again. Outside, people were doing body shots with some tequila, and more than a little bit of flesh was revealed. The dancing spilled out into the street and you could see the steam rise off a dozen half-uncovered bodies.
It was going to be some spring.
The crowd broke up somewhere after midnight, and Ingrid invited the stragglers back to her place. She made a grand gesture, waving those of us still standing toward the door and then walked up to Jimmy, whispering in his ear. He smiled and stepped back. Ingrid’s hands were on her hips, as if she were challenging him, and then she cocked her head a little, squaring right up to him and kissing him full on the mouth, in front of everyone. Jimmy bore the kiss with some grace and kissed her right back and a few of us whistled and cheered. We could almost hear the soundtrack of his life rising.
Later, when he told the story again, he would say she smelled fresh and a little salty, just like the sea.
You could see the party inside Ingrid’s house that night from any part of upper or lower Main, so those of us who weren’t there felt as if we had been, and later, a few would tell the story like they’d seen it and heard it unfold under their very noses. How, after a few drinks, the leg wrestling began. How Ingrid wore her hip huggers and tiny tank top, her navel and the white skin of her belly apparent, her body beefy in an elegant kind of way. How she hopped and high-fived and smoked cigarettes between rounds and drank expensive glasses of Sangiovese, while The Gypsy Kings and BeauSoleil fiddled on the stereo.
Outside, the house glowed blue with the pale fire of hundreds of tiny white Christmas lights strung across the ceiling of the living room. From the street, it looked almost like a stage. Through the glass, you could see legs locked in air, rising from the floor. Occasionally a body would flip ass first over an invisible opponent.
Inside, Ingrid flirted with Jimmy in earnest, positioning herself near him and treating him with all the intimacy of a lover. He was unused to such attention and stood his ground, a little wide-eyed, but it was clear he felt buoyant and unbelievably lucky.
As the story goes, the leg wrestling went on until Ingrid had beat every last one of the boys, including Jules, whose squat body made him look like a miniature superhero.
“Now that’s what I like in a girl, spunk,” Horse drawled in a slow kind of way, moving in. He was from the swamps of Louisiana and a full four hands taller than Ingrid, and he nosed up to her like a prize stud to a brood mare.
But Jimmy intercepted Ingrid, rising as if by instinct to protect her, moving between her and the looming Horse.
“My dance,” he said, nuzzling her in the neck and pushing her back with the weight of his body. She smiled at him and laughed, but she looked tense inside his arms.
Jimmy kissed her then, a little awkwardly, in front of us and the boys, as if claiming his territory. After, he looked into her face, smiling, tremulously, like some medieval saint. In return, Ingrid’s smile turned crisp and she pushed him back, and then, as if in slow-motion, caught his arm and spun it around his body. He orbited away from her and she swiped his legs with her own, pushing the side of her flat hand into his neck and then punching at his chest. He fell to the ground, surprised.
The boys roared.
“I guess she showed you who wears the pants,” Horse said.
Jules picked Jimmy up by his shoulders and shoved him forward. “Get back in there,” he said. But Jimmy shrugged and said, “I don’t fight women.”
“Then fight me! I’ll kick your ass!” cried Rooster. He was high and happy and drunk on too much beer and his image of himself had grown in his mind proportionally. He squatted and then kicked high—surprisingly high—and fell back to his squat, his fists raised. Jimmy tackled him instinctively, wrestling Rooster’s slim form to the rug. They fell with a thud that shook the table lamps and went at each other snarling and ripping and rolling. Even if Rooster hadn’t been so drunk, it would have been over soon—Jimmy was strong and muscled. His shoulders and chest were thick, but you didn’t see it right away when you looked at him. There was something obliging about him. He didn’t carry himself like most of the other boys, in that cocksure way that heaved from the groin and chest. Jimmy was quieter, less flashy, but apparently no less a brute when the time came, and Rooster had underestimated him. Jimmy pinned him savagely, thrusting his face to the rug and pulling his arms up behind him.
“That’s nothing,” said Jules, pushing Jimmy off Rooster, “fight me.” He swung and caught Jimmy in the cheek, knocking him over. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed, and we could all see what was coming next. Jimmy fell back and then came up, murderous.
“Wait a minute, guys,” yelled Ingrid, but it was too late. The two men rose and collided like rams.
“Hold on, hold on, now,” cried Horse, but he was too slow and Jimmy fisted Jules to the gut and then clipped his shoulders and chest with his elbow. Jules looked up stunned, as Jimmy kicked high, aiming for the center of his chest, deflecting to his left shoulder at the last minute. There was a popping sound, and Jules went over with a grunt.
“I win,” Jimmy said, looking up at Ingrid, as if he hadn’t. But she smiled back, grinning from ear to ear.
Jimmy stepped forward, kissing Ingrid with the force of a blow, and then, he walked out into the night.
By the next morning a palpable change had taken place among the boys as they sat, unshaven and a little bleary-eyed, around the big table near the bar, in the comforting dimness of the back of the Merc. Jules was quiet and thoughtful, for once, holding his arm close to his chest. The rest talked as if men come to a new religion. Davey and Rooster recounted each fight, exaggerating of course, taking turns trying to make each loser seem more pathetic. Only Jimmy was absent and soon the talk turned to Ingrid and her apparent skill.
“She decked him, man. I mean wham! and Jimmy went down,” said Davey.
“Never seen a woman do that,” said Horse, a little sadly and suggestively.
“Except your wife,” someone said and we laughed.
“I once knew a gal who trapped gators in the swamp,” said Horse, ignoring them. “Tough little thing. Could bring even the mean ones in, taller and bigger than her. Lucille, that was her name, but we called her ‘Lady’ because if she could skin a gator, we were sure she could do worse to us. She was something, I’ll tell you what.”
“A gal like that makes for a good roll,” Rooster said dreamily. “A little spark, know what I mean?”
“Yeah, well here’s the deal with Ingrid,” said Davey importantly. “She knows karate.”
“Well, that’s a whole bonfire,” Horse said.
“You mean kung-fu, hi-yah shit?” asked Rooster, laughing.
Davey nodded. “I guess she trains for fights. I heard her ask Jimmy to come to some practice down in Boulder. Said it would kick his ass.”
Horse laughed. “Ain’t that romantic.” And Rooster said, “Oh Jesus, Jimmy’s gonna get whupped.”
Davey continued, wringing innuendo out of everything he had heard, giving all the bloody details. Timed handstands and hundreds of sit-ups and kicks and stomach punches. We all sat and listened, but a fever began to burn in the boys. You could almost see them imagining the raw power lurking in their own bodies. And then Davey described the fights that ended each workout—full contact sparring—and the boys were lost. He said those two little words—“full contact”—and their eyes shone; for one glorious moment, each of the boys imagined the weight of his body against Ingrid’s.
“There’s a practice tonight,” said Davey. “It’s down by the Salvation Army.”
“Hallelujah to that, brother,” said Rooster.
It was like that scene in Gone with the Wind when someone announces the war at the picnic and all the mean leave that instant, saddling up and riding away to glory.
“Oh, I’m there!” shouted Jules. He pumped the air ridiculously with his good arm, still holding the other close to his side, and high-fived Davey. The other men nodded and raised their coffee cups and smiled, and that was the beginning of the Karate Boys.
At the dojo, the boys were almost transformed. Gone were the shaggy jeans and Carhart jackets, the uncombed hair. They looked clean in the white cotton Gis and there was something a little primordial about them. Jules looked like a samurai warrior, his curly black hair pulled up into a knot at the top of his head. And Rooster looked venerable. He even seemed taller. While Horse and Davey managed to look as if they had been caught in their pajamas, they were the wildest fighters of the bunch, ferociously heaving and hewing their considerable weight over the padded fight mat.
They attended practice three times a week, joining Jimmy and Ingrid in the early evenings for bruising workouts. By then Ingrid and Jimmy were burning up the mat, too, with their romance. It was not a surprise really. In Pine, the single were bound to hook up: proximity and familiarity eventually led to at least one transgression or another, it was inevitable; but even though romances burned bright as candles, they did not last half as long. Men and women tried each other on and shook each other off, relegating the affair to bad judgment or too much beer. If the coupling lasted only a short time, then the town seemed to forget that it had occurred, but if it went on for months, then it became part of town lore and the story got circulated over and over, and in that way, never seemed to go away. It would rise up at the most inopportune times to embarrass its main characters and remind them of their poor judgment and loneliness, or stupidity.
So we all waited to see if Ingrid and Jimmy would last.
At the dojo, the boys said Ingrid was all elbows and fists and aggressive stance, treating Jimmy especially like a combatant. In exercise pairs, she swore at him ferociously and egged him on like a boot camp instructor, “Come on Jimmy, do fifty more, do it!” she’d holler at his hundredth or two hundredth sit-up. But, nights at the Merc they were tender with each other, Jimmy’s hand resting protectively on Ingrid’s waist or thigh, Ingrid nuzzling him in front of the boys.
To the boys, the romance was just a passing thing, their skepticism rising out of simple male pride, the gaudy ego born to each that put him at the center of a universe of beautiful women. They complained a little more about Jimmy in those early spring days, saying he wasn’t himself, that he’d been whupped by a woman. And we all knew it was a kind of unspoken thing among them that in dating Ingrid, Jimmy had forsaken his comrades. The funny thing was, you could tell every one of them had dreams of winning Ingrid over for himself, even though the whole town knew none of them had half a chance. And maybe it was for this reason that they went at karate harder than we’d seen them go at anything ever in the history of the town.
That’s when we started calling them the Karate Boys, because they traveled in a pack, as strange and comical as some Saturday morning cartoon complete with kicks and the sparring and the guttural yells. Soon every party in town was overrun with them. Horse stomped a hole in Maddie Rockson’s cabin floor, and Rooster and Davey broke two lamps at Joe Mercer’s 50th birthday party. They even disrupted dinners at the Merc with demonstrations of their karate skill. Every occasion, it seemed, was an opportunity to practice their moves.
But they were imitating karate, playing and posturing like twelve-year-olds, relishing the way their bodies felt lunging and releasing all that chi. Saturday night and the boys would gather at the Merc, hovering near the bar or bunched around a booth. They never sat still. Hands chopped the air. Elbows cut and fists slammed. If there was enough room, and sometimes when there wasn’t, they’d kick and spin.
“I love you, man,” they’d say to each other between swigs of beer and punches.
They bonded in that way men do, seeing who could do the most harm, and in this they were vicious. Davey scratched Rooster’s eye the very first week and, after that, Rooster had to wear a patch for ten days, and we all called him Matey. Jules broke Rooster’s thumb and then his collarbone, and Horse suffered bruised and broken ribs after he told Davey he hit like a girl. They growled and swung and chopped, letting their hits rise up from their bellies with all the air of their life force, the way the sensei taught them. After sparring, they were sweaty and usually there was blood, but by the time they had driven up the mountain and ordered a beer from Donna, they were smiling and bragging and crowing over their injuries. If the Karate Boys took great pride in listing the bloody details of another’s injury, that pride increased a hundred times if the injury was their own. They’d laugh about great boiling bruises and broken fingers, and crow over dislocated shoulders and chipped ribs.
For our part, we gathered at the Merc to listen, drawn to this strange spectacle of men fighting for and with a woman, fascinated by Ingrid and all the ruckus she caused. Some of the family men talked about joining the dojo, but then their wives would nix the idea, saying they already had children in the house. Single women either befriended Ingrid, who was friendly and had taken to having weekly “girls’ cocktail hour” at her house, or simply rolled their eyes and waited for the tempest to pass.
The spring began to warm as the days lengthened and the sun returned, rising up over the canyon wall. All around you could smell the scent of wet earth. A month passed, Jimmy and Ingrid were sparring in earnest. Fighting and fucking had become inextricably linked. They could be seen sparring night after night through the window of the Blondoe house, sometimes toppling onto one another right there on the floor, sometimes disappearing into the back bedroom. We took turns imagining the details of their attraction, amused and a little shocked by Ingrid and how she’d brought out the killer in Jimmy, who was by now, with the exception of Ingrid, the best fighter at the dojo.
“I’ll kick your ass,” she liked to say to him, and them jump-squat and raise her fists in an invitation to fight. She’d be grinning, but there was something dark and killing in her eyes and she would kick and punch with all her might. Jimmy would punch back, elbowing and tripping until one of them landed too many painful hits and then, it was inevitable that one would substitute a chop for a kiss, a kick for a caress. We saw it all, were partner to some of the most intimate details of their courtship, or so we thought, but then there were some who said that when the lights dimmed and the two disappeared, that was the most dangerous contact of all.
By the time the tournament came round, Jimmy and Ingrid’s romance had passed from the stuff of gossip into town lore, and we had accepted Ingrid’s party-like-a-rock-star ways and flamboyant nature as one of our own. All the boys had entered the tournament and they were practicing in earnest. Then more than ever it seemed to us that Karate had risen up in them like a great fiery vision. It had taken on a life of its own. What began as a chance to impress a woman had become a personal test of manhood. You could almost smell it on them. Their bodies were electric with it and their eyes shone over their steaming cups of coffee. Each measured himself against the others, weighing his own strength, the murderous potential of his hands and legs. Privately, they vowed to best each other in the tournament. Publicly, they swore off women, taking a group vow of abstinence, which really wasn’t much of a sacrifice, and went into serious training.
In the days preceding the big event, the town went quiet as all the combatants seriously gauged their chances for a medal. Nights at the Merc were subdued for a change, and this brought out a few families who normally shied away.
The day of the tournament, half the town packed the tiny dojo and watched as the pairs were posted. Ingrid and Jimmy were matched in a fight. Jimmy stood off by himself, pacing. They had never had a full-contact fight.
Ingrid came up from behind, punching Jimmy in the back, then nuzzling his ear.
“See you in the ring, lover,” she said affectionately, and walked to the opposite side of the dojo where she stood with the rest of the boys, who surrounded her like a posse.
When they were called, Ingrid stepped into the ring, beaming. Jimmy bowed and waited for the referee’s call and Ingrid came at him with all her might. It was clear she meant to win. She punched his shoulder and chest and then spun a kick, grinning slightly when the hits landed. You could tell she was enjoying the fight, and some of us thought this made Jimmy a little sick. He was defending himself, but wasn’t hitting back. He looked angry and a little sullen. Ingrid scored a direct hit and they were separated.
Horse and Rooster and Davey stood in Ingrid’s corner, calling encouragement, backed by two months’ worth of jealousy and frustration, celebrating her hits against Jimmy. They wanted Ingrid not only to beat Jimmy, but to humiliate him as well.
Jules called to Jimmy then, “Come on now. Be a man. Fight. Fight!” He alone stood in Jimmy’s corner, encouraging him, egging him on.
The referee called time and Ingrid hopped forward, her fists raised. Her hair swung and her eyes narrowed and the grin was gone from her face. She was taking this all too seriously. She jabbed and jabbed, trying to get Jimmy to engage, but he wouldn’t lift his hands to defend himself. We felt a little sorry for him and a little embarrassed. We yelled for Jimmy, hoping the disaster we saw coming could somehow be averted.
Ingrid’s blows came with increasing fury. She landed another direct hit and again they were called to their corners. Jules was there talking to Jimmy. “Come on, man. She’s a girl. You can’t let her beat you. You know you can’t.”
Jimmy shrugged. Later, over beer, he would confess he had wanted to hit Ingrid hard, to see her fall blankly to the mat, and this had made him feel sluggish and sick. So he had concentrated on his breathing, trying to keep his fury in check. It was all her fault, he said, he should have given her what she had coming.
When the referee called time, he moved a little more, dancing away from Ingrid’s punches and jabs. She pursued him, working him around the ring until he was up against one of the ropes.
“Hit her, you pussy,” hissed Jules, and Jimmy turned his head, suddenly swinging at him, forgetting Ingrid’s advance. She punched the side of his head and then his kidney as he lunged toward Jules. We all knew it was an illegal hit. Jimmy fell forward into the ropes and Jules’s arms. We waited for the ref to call the hit, but the whistle didn’t come. Instead, Jules shoved him back, calling “Bitch.” Ingrid twisted toward Jimmy. She kicked him hard in the side, and then chopped viciously at his shoulders. He stumbled and then his legs buckled and he was down, holding his side.
The boys were chanting, “Ingrid, Ingrid,” and Jules was yelling “Get up, get up!” And some of us shouted Jimmy’s name. Others said nothing, knowing this could not come to any good. The ref called the third hit and the match was over.
We all watched as Ingrid walked away, arm in arm with Horse and Rooster.
“Man, you let her beat you,” said Jules, assessing Jimmy’s weakness. “Chicks hate that.” And then he joined Ingrid and the boys.
The next night, we all watched the sparring commence at Ingrid’s house, the nightly ritual lit by lights, staged for the benefit of the town. Ingrid dressed in her Gi, fighting Jules, the two of them sparring and jabbing.
We all imagined Jimmy standing on his deck, looking down at Ingrid’s house, as he realized he was replaceable, but none of us had the heart to look or to even stop by. His final humiliation seemed too personal. Instead, we bore witness with him as he sat alone in the late May air, the smell of pine ripe and pungent as incense, sipping one beer and then another and another and watching the two fight and then make love right there on Ingrid’s couch.
Jimmy quit the dojo and mornings with the boys, retreating to his garage up on the hill. We never saw him unless we stopped by to see how his boat was coming. Sometimes he talked about Ingrid, saying these things we’ve come to know about them and how with her he’d felt the same as he did when he took a new boat out, unsure of its weight or its glide on the water, and this is what had made him feel alive for the first time. We realized then, we’d made a mistake about Jimmy. He wasn’t really a Karate Boy. He had really loved Ingrid. The other boys might have pursued her as a conquest, or a trophy to be won, but Jimmy wanted a life with her and we felt sorry that we had misjudged his loneliness. He said he was thinking of making his own boat and setting sail. Maybe the Keys or Costa Rica. He was tired of mountain living, tired of the smallness of his life. And we tried to steer him away, tried to invite him out of his house, but Jimmy would shake his head and an awkward silence would fall.
We were trying to move on, trying to urge Jimmy on with things too, for his sake as well as the town’s.
Summer warmed into full bloom. Lilacs opened and spread their sticky scent out along the streets of Pine, followed by the gaudy heads of oriental poppies as local gardens sprouted. The town began to buzz like a colony of bees as people came out of more and more in the lengthening days. The porch of the Merc was full of happy faces, drinking beer well into the evening, and the sound of their talk and laughter drifted along Main Street. By then Ingrid and Jules’s affair had burned hot, but brief, and maybe in defense to Jimmy, we didn’t pay it or the story of it too much mind.
There was a brief period, in the aftermath of the fight, that the Karate Boys had grown more brazen, clamoring for Ingrid’s attention with even wilder shows of force. But the truth was, we were all getting a little sick of them and thought it was time they settled down. We stopped hanging out for their stories after the dojo, the married men saying they had to get home to their families, and the women rolling their eyes and moving off to their own corner to talk.
The night Horse and Jules broke a booth at the Merc, Donna threw them out, banning them from even stepping onto the porch. She put a sign in the window that said “NO KARATE BOYS ALLOWED,” and that finally embarrassed the men into acting half their age again. Horse started paying attention to his wife again, and everyone except Jules quit the dojo, each offering a plausible excuse. Horse said he was a man of peace now and Davey said it was too violent, while Rooster said he was acting in solidarity with Jimmy. They offered to fix what they broke at the Merc and added a few more repairs for free, and the summer continued more quietly than it had started.
Jimmy finally emerged from his self-imposed hibernation in time for 4th of July and the annual town parade, and we took this as a sign that some kind of normal life had returned at last. July 4th was a kind of ritual for the town. Folks spruced up their convertibles and jalopies and rode them in the parade. Kids decorated their bikes with red and blue crepe paper streamers. Rooster led the kazoo band, and Jimmy sailed his boat down Main Street. Most everyone in town was in the parade, so the only onlookers were people who had been caught trying to go up or down canyon to bigger, but not necessarily better, celebrations. We loved this day and looked forward to it, putting our differences aside to host pig roasts and share fireworks with friends and enemies alike.
This year, Ingrid had joined the festivities by organizing a karate exhibition. We were all surprised and a little hesitant at first, but since all the proceeds from the day’s events—from pancake breakfast to raffle and T-shirt sales—went to the volunteer fire department, accounting for most of its annual income, and Ingrid had organized the biggest fund-raiser of all, in the spirit of the community, we went along with it. The tournament was free, but betting would be allowed and at first this had caused, in addition to a good deal of anticipation, some squabbling about legality, which was eventually bypassed in the name of frontier spirit and an exceptionally dry forecast for the coming fire season.
It was to be the last event of the afternoon before the bands took the stage and the fireworks started, and Ingrid had arranged for a ring to be erected in the park across from the Merc, right in the middle of town. She invited all the boys, including Jimmy, to participate. For her, it was a kind of goodwill gesture, showing she had no hurt feelings or ill will and she just wanted everybody to get along. She seemed to want things to get back to normal too. And she knew the town sympathy favored Jimmy, who had been one of our own for a lot longer. Maybe we were all a little surprised when Jimmy declined to fight; the memory of a small town is funny. We don’t forget, but we do forgive.
Maybe that’s why despite all the ruckus and eye-rolling and mean gossip the Karate Boys had caused, we looked forward to the fight. Some said that since the tournament at the dojo, things had been kind of quiet and that this new event was the most exciting thing to happen in town since Ingrid’s arrival. Others just said they thought it was a good way to raise money. But the truth was, they wanted to see blood. Much talk ensued. Cash was readied, piggy banks opened, and much beer drunk in anticipation. On the fateful day everyone showed up, even the lesbian pacifists who lived on the outskirts of town.
Rooster was paired with Davey, Jules with Ingrid, and the winner from each match would fight for the title of Pinewood Fourth of July Fight Champion. Even though Ingrid said it was only an exhibition, she felt a title was in order for the winner, which we knew would be her. Horse had broken his finger in a bar fight over in Nederland and was out of commission, so he got to be the referee.
Rooster and Davey were about as evenly matched as two men could be. Though Rooster outnumbered him in years, Davey had celebrated his independence by upending more than a few beers prior to the match. His stance was sloppy and he was slow to respond to Rooster’s cocky advances, and in no time Rooster had scored two hits. It was a little bit like watching mud-wrestling, the two men slogging at each other through some invisible barrier.
Rooster kicked at Davey, who fell trying to block with his arm. When Rooster tried to help him up, Davey pulled him to the mat and they rolled around like WWF titans, growling. We egged them on, until Horse separated them.
“Back to your corners, men,” he said sternly, pointing the way for the swerving Davey.
Rooster turned and sauntered back, but Davey would have no part of it. He ignored Horse’s directions and rose up, tall as a bear, charging his opponent. The force of the blow sent both flying order the cordoned rope and out of the ring and onto the grass. Rooster all but disappeared under Davey’s bulk and people crowded in to see what was going to happen next. But Davey simply rolled away and grabbed a beer from the nearest person.
“It’s a tie,” he said, offering the beer to his friend, and that seemed good enough. Together the two half swaggered, half stumbled back into the crowd, high-fiving the outstretched hands.
After such a display, it was decided that Jules and Ingrid would fight for the title. We crowded in to see the jilted lover fight the woman who had so recently and unceremoniously dumped him, saying he was boring and a little dumb.
That was when we noticed Jimmy in the crowd and were glad he would join us. Some nodded their heads and said, “He’ll be okay.” Rooster placed a beer in his hand, saying, “Here, you need this.”
In the ring, Jules went after Ingrid, cutting her lip with his elbow in the first three minutes and scoring first one, then another hit. We booed, but it only seemed to egg him on. Jimmy pushed closer to the ring. He was sweating and looked a little crazy.
Jules smirked as Horse called time and then he threw a direct kick to Ingrid’s face. She spun back and he threw out a leg and swept her off her feet. Ingrid when down in a whoosh and slammed into the mat, her mouth opened and for an instant no air came out at all. He whispered something close, under his breath, and some said he said “Bitch, get up,” but we couldn’t say for sure.
That’s when Jimmy shoved past the last row of people and into the ring, rushing Jules. Jules deflected Jimmy’s advance with an elbow and then a punch. Jimmy snapped to attention and let his spin build to a kick which he leveled at Jules’s solar plexus. Horse shouted, “Now hold on. Hold on! Time, time!” but we could tell the two men meant to kill each other. And we felt a panic, a sick feeling that something terrible was about to happen.
Rooster had pulled Ingrid back out of the way, but she was straining at his grip. “Fucker,” she yelled, “You motherfucker!” You could almost see the crowd take a collective step backward. This was no mere bar fight. And it wasn’t even karate. Children were pulled out of the way and sent for sparklers or ice pops back at the house.
Jules collapsed and Jimmy hurtled after him, his hands coursing toward the curve of his throat. Later some would say it was jealousy, others said it was Jimmy defending Ingrid’s honor, but we will never know. A few men climbed into the ring, grabbing Jimmy by the shoulders, pulling him off Jules. Horse was saying, “Easy, easy,” and Jimmy let himself be carried back. Ingrid stood in the corner of the ring, her face fixed in what we thought must have been fury at Jules.
Jules shook off the men supporting him and walked unsteadily away, his head hung low, his whole body going soft in defeat. He walked across the park to the street and disappeared down the road, inside the glare of the lowering sun, like some defeated gunslinger.
Then a funny thing happened, a thing that would widen into remorse and regret for years to come. The crowd, who seconds before had been appalled by the fight, began to clamor for another. It was like that first night when Ingrid had practically caused a riot in the Merc; suddenly we wanted to get in on the action, suddenly we wanted to cause a ruckus too.
“Jimmy, Ingrid! Jim-my, In-grid!” we shouted. No one wanted Jules’s beating of Ingrid to stand. “Jim-my-In-grid!!” we shouted and clapped and stomped. Ingrid nodded and grinned and Jimmy shrugged. He looked dazed, but then he smiled a little too, and we felt sure the ice of winter had broken at last and we shouted louder and some people danced a little and whistled. In the ring, Jimmy smiled back and waved. He had the same look he had when he talked about boats and water, and we thought everything would be all right. Jimmy was setting sail; we were an ocean he knew and understood.
So bets were waged, talk was had, and sides chosen. We squared into factions behind each fighter, but it all felt friendly. Some shifted allegiance to Ingrid, who had been so brutishly used by Jules. Others gave sympathy to Jimmy, who had returned to us and who would be our champion.
When the time was called, Ingrid’s fight face registered nothing, while Jimmy’s was soft. You could tell he was thinking of something else, that his body was moving instinctively, blocking and jabbing. He put up his hands, and danced around Ingrid, and his smile widened, but he did not really hit or kick her. This infuriated Ingrid. She leveled blows to his shoulder, to his kidney, to the back of his head. But Jimmy sparred and twirled away, smiling and smiling. Ingrid began to call him names, to taunt him.
“Quitter,” she said. “Loser.”
And Jimmy just took it. He let her hit him, shifting just at the last minute so the blow glanced just off registering a direct hit.
“I love you,” he said, as she hit him in the cheek with her heel. “I muhf you.”
“Then fight me, you fucker,” she screamed and raised her hand high above them to bring her full weight crashing down on his head. In that instant we imagined Jimmy felt the wind shift and suddenly he was sailing fast over tumultuous water and it didn’t bother him at all. He looked as if he wanted to laugh out loud. He put up his hands and hit Ingrid square in the face. And then, in a gesture only he could understand, opened his arms wide, baring himself from chin to sternum in the face of Ingrid’s advance.
We pushed forward, yelling his name, but it was too late. Jimmy did not see the kick Ingrid delivered to his neck, the air in his lungs suddenly cut off; his eyes were closed and he looked impossibly serene. He fell.
Later, we imagined what it must have been like for him, how he would not see us stop in mid-clap and holler, or hear our stunned silence falling along with his body. Ingrid’s cry and then sob. We knew Jimmy was thinking of sailing away. Africa, South America, his boat full and sure on rolling waves and he, adrift under cottony clouds, a perfect day—the sky, a blast of sheer blue.