He got started quick. He found me out, honed in, and covered me at the bar.
The clash was long awaited. I went running, went out for a coffee or a sandwich or an afternoon round at the polite dive up the street, and heard the same “you’re wearing the wrong shirt, pal” quip on each occasion. It was only a matter of time, I’d figured, until I would be caught in the wrong crowd of young, opinionated Seattleites, defending myself from the away team’s bench.
“Aye, if you’re not drinking, maybe you’re not playing the right game,” he yelled in my face.
I had no idea what to say, and so searched around the slim, late-night Thursday crowd—looking for a host to some game show, looking for something on the television for context.
He went on and on.
When I came in he stopped me, not 10 feet through the door. The stranger here, I guessed. He saw me and probably just wanted it with anyone. He was sloshed and I was clean—not sober but clean, dry.
“Oklahoma!? Motherfuckers!” and so it went. I could feel his steamy, drunk breath.
I wiped the spit from my nose and rubbed my glasses dry with the bottom of my t-shirt. I’d stood there for 10 minutes, cracking my fingers, folding and refolding a crisp $20 bill, and waving to the tiny girl behind the bar when she came by, before she turned back to her laps. She saw me, but she also saw him next to me, screaming and growling.
“If you knew anything, you’d be ashamed,” he said. He was licking vodka from his fingers. There was a puddle on the bar under his elbow, his elbow right fucking in it.
Ashamed, I thought. You prick.
“And what a stupid fuckin’ name. Where’d they even get that?” He was sort of smiling, but it was so childish. This lured me in: What kept him going? Certainly there is some neurological dam that forces me into this—an argument or standoff without enough space.
“Are you from Australia?” I asked, turning to him. I’d been slowly picking up on his faint, tarnished twang. His lips were less than a foot from my ear and he swayed where he stood, widening then tightening the gap between us. It had been minutes since I last replied, so I had to get back in it.
“Yeah, I am. So fuckin’ what?” he said, his accent all of a sudden more pronounced. “So what do you care? You’re talking to me about some sort of insane loyalty?” I was spouting much more than I knew — about the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Bobcats, Pelicans, etc. How quickly I’d flipped the board. I was pointing and spreading my fingers and waving, drawing some map of my validity—more importantly, configuring his invalidity.
“It’s a fucking sport, mate,” I finished.
Mate, that’s what got to him.
He slammed his drink on the wood, losing the rest of his vodka. His lime bounced off the rim of the glass and onto the floor. He squared toward me; his eyes were slightly boggled, but wide open.
I looked at the hat. I thought about the Green Bay Packers, Baylor, Shawn Kemp, and the Space Needle (and maybe Frasier). Things that are things are things.
Before I knew, he’d gone through with it, and then he was down. Not that I’d sent him to the ground: He swung, I stepped back, and he toppled over like a massive child.
He was soaked, and black crumbs and bits of wood and glitter stuck on his shirt. He got up fast, faster than I expected he would. I looked for someone to get to him before he could get back up. I didn’t wait for another shot. I whipped my arm out and shoved his nose into his eyes with my palm. I felt the crunch and squeak of cartilage.
I’m not sure where such an educated swing came from. I hit him with precision and without personal injury. Probably it was movies, which offer timeless advice for street fights and cool, quick Liam Neeson knockouts. “Thank god for Kung Fu,” I joked. I’d never fought anyone beside my older brother, who’d kicked my ass for 18 years. But I had always been warned: “If you’re getting into a fight and you know it, swing first.” I never liked that idea. My schoolyard mentality was to respond, not to initiate. Fortunately, he started it and I replied. Immediately he was on his ass between several pairs of legs in skirts and slacks. Bright red, like watery paint, already smeared and streaming over his huge, stupid fingers. He looked up and his eyes were red too—wet and red. He was crying whether he knew it or felt it. He didn’t try to get up this time. Even when the men around him tried to hook him under the arms and pull him to his feet, he brushed them off, swiping at them and covering their khakis and smooth, bare legs with blood. Suddenly, nobody was happy. The men stared and pointed while the girls squealed quietly about the gross, chilling color of red on their calves and ankles.
I left without grabbing my money from the bar. Around a corner I stopped and had a cigarette, waiting. People should have followed, searched me out—at least to ask what happened and why—but they didn’t. Nobody followed or yelled or anything.
I’m told that Shawn Kemp—a childhood idol of mine—owns a bar by KeyArena and is there most nights. I want to walk in and get a picture with him. But I’m warned away because I’m from Oklahoma. Warned away because I’m for the wrong team—a team of traitors or sellouts. Shawn Kemp doesn’t appreciate it either, from what I’m told.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 20, October 15, 2014.