Word Count 500
By Terry Rainey
Mr. Radatz, ex-Marine, buzz cut, square-jawed and flinty, taught us physical education Wednesdays and Fridays. His ever-present tobacco wad garbled his words but didn’t conceal the anger and urgency. Everything he said sounded like a verdict. Legend had it that he had taken Okinawa single-handedly. He expected us to be tough, hard-nosed, and ready to defend ourselves.
So we boxed two days a week in the basement of Father Guinness Parish Hall. While we sweated, Mr. Radatz sprayed us with manly wisdom and tobacco juice. He’d repeat “Lead with the left, keep the right up for protection,” his voice rising. He called us by our last names, if we were lucky. Even when he mispronounced our name, that was preferable to a nickname like Bullethead, Lipper, Muldoon, or Boneboy. Radatz nicknames stuck to kids like bad tattoos.
One Friday, we squared off against a real opponent, with the entire class ringed around us in the sweaty Guinness Hall basement. I was matched up with Nathan Berryman. Nathan was docile and impassive. Facing Nathan was an insult. I considered him below me in the toughness scale. That supposed superiority actually drained my confidence rather than enhanced it.
The boxing gloves, ones that my older brothers had likely used, were difficult to put on my trembling hands. I felt the eyes of 30 boys on me as I walked to the center of the mat. I swallowed some fear. All of a sudden, I was a little unsteady.
I masked my doubt with action. I immediately set in on Nathan, fists flying. I landed ineffectual blows to his shoulders and the side of his head. I held up a bit, wondering if Nathan wasn’t interested. Then I put all my might behind a punch, but I missed and dropped my left hand, completely forgetting Mr. Radatz’s lessons. Nathan wheeled and threw a roundhouse right. His thinly gloved fist landed square against my mouth, mashing my lips into my teeth with shocking force. I felt his hard knuckles.
I saw stars. I staggered. I couldn’t breathe. Nathan saw it in my wounded eyes, in my unsure footing, my lurch. I was muddled, and Nathan knew it. We stared at each other. Nathan’s blue eyes radiated heat and rage while mine watered. Mr. Radatz saved the day by blowing his whistle and ending the bout.
Blood dripped in my mouth through the afternoon. It tasted like ashes. It carried the acid taste I knew from my father’s scorn, my brothers’ dismissals. My downgrading of Nathan turned on me and scalded me.
That Sunday, I served as altar boy at the 9:15 mass for Father Badassari. When he lifted the chalice during the consecration, the shiny gold vessel was like a mirror. In my reflection, I could still see the red mark of shame on my remorseful face. I held the platen under Father’s hand as he distributed the healing body of Christ to the congregation. Each parishioner, I was sure, noticed it as well.