Street Fighting Man, Chapter 1

Synopsis:

Kevin moves from New Jersey to Georgia after his parents’ divorce. He looks forward to a summer of freedom after an awful school year, but his mom announces that they’ll be spending the summer in a town called Pigeon Forge. Things aren’t all bad as the tourist trap town is a haven for adolescent boys. Kevin discovers a new arcade game and makes some friends. He even falls in love with a girl. The idyllic summer doesn’t last as Kevin confronts bullies, his estranged dad, and his own failings. By summer’s end, Kevin has grown in ways to overcome all these challenges and win.

May 1991

1.

It was Kevin’s last day in hell.

Hell was Button Gwinnett Junior High, the school Kevin Choi transferred to in the middle of his 8th grade year. The day would’ve been tolerable if he just had to clean out his locker and sit in class until school ended. Sometimes the teachers turned off the lights as a placebo for the brain-scrambling heat and humidity. It was the perfect environment to nod off and drool on a desk. But no. The forces of the universe, the powers-that-be, actively conspired to make Kevin’s life as miserable as possible. The last day of school had to be a field day.

Instead of counting down the interminable minutes to summer vacation in a dank tomb, Kevin stood in the middle of a field where the withering midday sun piledrove him into the scorched earth. He was with his homeroom class; an incongruous assortment of jocks, preppies, rednecks, nerds, and students bussed in from inner-city Atlanta. These social demarcations existed since time immemorial, but were briefly suspended on field day in the name of homeroom camaraderie. Everyone hated it.

There were a few kids that Kevin was friendly with, but none were in his homeroom. The gut-twisting feeling of being out of place was amplified in the irregular ranks of his homeroom. It wasn’t bad enough that Kevin was a new student, bereft of the safety net of social connections woven over years of shared misery in the public school system. He was also a minority of minorities—a Korean-American transplanted to what Kevin considered the deep, dark South. Any deeper, Kevin thought, and he’d find himself in Hazzard County.

Over the school year, a bewildering number of students remarked how Kevin was the first Asian person they’d seen in real life. Most of these interactions were simply curious and uninformed, but some were profound in their belligerence. That wasn’t anything new to Kevin. Even when he lived in New Jersey, he had to deal with kids calling him things like chink and making slanty-eyes ever since kindergarten.

Me Chinese, me know joke. Me put pee pee in your Coke!

Back then Kevin couldn’t understand why kids he didn’t even know would come up and tease him. He wasn’t even Chinese. He’d come home crying to his parents, who counseled him to seek out a teacher or to walk away; two solutions that never solved any conflict on any playground ever. Kevin came to accept the insults as a normal part of life.

There were maybe three of four other Asian kids in Kevin’s school. He surveyed them from afar, refusing to explicitly acknowledge their existence. Kevin felt there was nothing more pathetic than associating with others similarly marginalized. If you’re going to be an outcast, at least have the decency to do it alone. He didn’t think that way anymore, his pride succumbing to the crushing loneliness one can only feel when surrounded by people.

Coach Maddox, Kevin’s homeroom teacher, was trying to rally her students in the homeroom cheer competition. She was a stout, rosy-cheeked woman with a mullet. Kevin wasn’t sure what she coached besides the 22 listless students in front of her. Coach Maddox ran up and down the lines of her students, pumping her arms and growing redder by the second. “C’mon! C’mon! C’MOOOOOOON!”

To Kevin’s alarm, Coach Maddox’s exhortations grew to a shrill and braying crescendo of rodent-like mewling, her entire face an indecent shade of red. It reminded Kevin of a baboon’s swollen red buttocks. He looked away and felt a little dirty inside.

The riotous cheers of hundreds of students died down as the principal trilled a whistle to end the cheer competition. After a brief discussion with the vice principal and guidance counselors, the judges of field day, Principal Hackett declared some homeroom not Kevin’s as the winner. Raucous celebrations broke out in another section of the field. Kevin heard grumbling behind him. “We would’ve won if these fags helped out.” Kevin caught the motion of a hand jerked in his direction and felt eyes on him.

Hot, itchy patches of anger prickled across Kevin’s scalp and neck. He didn’t bother to see who was talking. Probably some jock named Brock or Connor.

“Who the hell cares?” Kevin muttered as he kicked up a clod of turf. He hated that it bothered him so much.

Kevin expended the absolute minimum amount of effort that could be called participation for the rest of the events: tug of war tournament, relay race, human pyramid, inflated pig bladder (water balloon) toss, et al. At the end, points were tallied, and Kevin’s homeroom walked away with an 11th place ribbon. Kevin looked at the ribbon. It struck him as absurd that such a thing existed. An 11th place ribbon? He made a bemused snort and pocketed the ribbon. It wasn’t even worth throwing away.

Principal Hackett gave an end-of-year address to the students through a megaphone. It was as bland and generic as the day was pointless. Kevin’s mind was wandering when he realized most of the students around him had their eyes closed and hands clasped together. The principal was leading the school in prayer. Kevin had to remind himself to breathe, so struck was he by the strangeness of the scene. He quickly lowered his head and looked at his feet. Something like this would never have happened at his old school in New Jersey.

Kevin thought about the blatant unconstitutionality of what he just witnessed, but more and more he accepted these and other peculiarities as part of life in Georgia. The Southern drawl with its maddening vernacular. Students wearing camouflage coveralls to school. The paddle hanging in the principal’s office that was not for show. How could he ever adjust to a place so fundamentally different than the home he left behind?

After principal Hackett’s benediction, he absolved the students of all academic responsibility, and set them loose until the final bell. Teachers patrolled the school grounds to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. The occasional scuffle flared up, quelled with brutal swiftness by vigilant teachers long sick of these students. If a teacher threw a careless punch or two and connected, it went unnoticed in the scrum. And in the hidden corners of the school grounds, cigarettes were smoked and bodies were groped.

Kevin looked for Daryl Chen, an improbably small overlap in the Venn diagram of the student body. Not only was Daryl one of the few Asians at school, he was also Kevin’s only friend, which made him an even rarer quantity. Daryl was milling about with a group of boys too insecure to be alone, yet not hormonal enough to venture socializing with girls. Kevin recognized the other boys from his classes. Some acknowledged Kevin’s arrival with a nod before resuming conversation. Not quite acceptance, but close enough.

They wandered without purpose across the schoolyard. There were impromptu spitting contests, pebble throwing contests, and other random diversions that 13 year-old boys invented when bored. Kevin didn’t join in, being content to hang back and snicker when appropriate.

“What are you gonna do this summer?” Daryl asked.

Kevin paused. “Hmm. Probably just play games, read comics, draw.”

“We should hang out. Maybe we can finally play some Dungeons & Dragons or something.”

When Kevin first transferred to Button Gwinnett, he carried a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook to fill all the dead time when nobody talked to him. It’s not like he really made an effort to talk to his new classmates, either. Daryl had seen Kevin reading the familiar thin, red book; the cover depicting a warrior fighting a dragon on a massive bed of gold. Daryl was the first to talk. He figured it was his responsibility, according to the complicated social calculus involved when dealing with new students. The conversation spilled over into the hallway and kept up ever since.

Kevin and Daryl became fast friends, bonding over their many, geeky, shared interests: D&D, video games, comics, science fiction, Japanese animation, and martial-arts films. Kevin had to fight the urge to be clingy because Daryl was a lifeline in an environment that seemed so alien and inhospitable. But Daryl had other friends, being an Atlanta native and having been in the same school system for several years. He alone was unable to fill Kevin’s hungry need to be accepted and known. Though Daryl introduced him to others in the class, Kevin had a hard time warming up to them. At this point in the school year, with social circles clearly defined, they had no need to make more friends. It just wasn’t worth the effort.

The rest of the group had fallen behind as Kevin and Daryl discussed summer plans. In the middle of planning optimal bike routes between the comic book store, the arcade at the mall, and each other’s houses, Kevin felt a tap on his shoulder. It was a kid named Bryce Timm.

“Dude, they gleeked all over your back.” His face strained with the effort to hold in laughter.

Kevin turned to look at his back. Dark pinpricks of saliva made a constellation map all over his t-shirt. Daryl’s back was untouched. Of course it was. He looked at Bryce, who clapped his hands and bent over with silent laughter. Kevin looked at the other faces in the group and saw they were laughing as well. He felt a mass of raw, black anger form in his stomach. His temples pounded with blood.

“What the hell, you guys?” asked Daryl.

“Chill out. It was just a jo…” Bryce’s excuse was cut short by Kevin’s unexpected right hook to his jaw. Bryce stumbled back and held his face in disbelief. He’d never been punched in the face before. The air turned as thick as pitch as the boys tried to process what was happening.

A long, breathless interval passed.

When the world began to turn again, Bryce stirred, his face contorted and purple with anger. “What the…”

Bryce’s words were cut off again. This time by a solid roundhouse kick to the stomach. As Bryce doubled over, choking for air, Kevin cupped a hand behind Bryce’s neck, and sent him tumbling headlong down the steep hill that flattened out into the activity fields below. Almost as one, the entire school turned and held their breaths as they watched Bryce pinwheel down the hill in a billowing cloud of choking dust. After what seemed like minutes, Bryce slammed into the ground at the bottom of the hill and lay moaning.

The boys at the top of the hill stared at Bryce in mute shock mixed with inclinations of violence. By the time they looked towards Kevin, it was too late. Whatever retaliation they hoped to exact was drowned out in the seething wake of Kevin’s anger. He lashed out at them one at a time and all at once. Knife-handed chops to the neck, snap kicks to the side of the head, straight punches to the solar plexus, and one by one, as with Bryce, Kevin sent them hurtling down to earth below.

Or that’s what Kevin wished had happened.

“What the hell, you guys?” asked Daryl.

“Chill out. It was just a joke.” Bryce snickered. He joined his friends.

Kevin felt the anger bubble into hot pools that threatened to spill over from his eyes. He absolutely could not let that happen. But Bryce and the other boys weren’t even looking at him anymore. They were already walking off, searching for their next piece of idle amusement. Kevin turned to leave.

“Hey, wait!” Daryl blurted out. Kevin stopped and looked at him.

“You’re hanging out with him?” Bryce sneered.

Daryl looked over at his friends. He looked back at Kevin and gave a pitiful shrug that begged forgiveness. Kevin made the decision for him and walked away, half-blind with tears.

He found a section of wall far away from the throngs of restless students and sat down. Kevin looked out at the crowds with stabbing resentment. He hated all those stupid kids. He hated this stupid school. He hated this stupid state and the reasons that forced him here. And Daryl. That stupid traitor. They were supposed to be friends. Kevin wiped the tears from his face as his anger subsided into a dull fugue.

When the final bell of the school year rang, Kevin remained still, lips barely parted. He breathed through his teeth, stoking the dying embers of his rage. Kevin saw the mad rush of students swarming to the buses. He rose haltingly to his feet and walked to his bus. His back and legs were sore from sitting in place for so long, but the discomfort kept the anger alive. He avoided the students in his classes, anyone that would recognize him.

Step by step, the black nucleus of Kevin’s anger was spent. By the time he set foot on the bus, the ashen remains drifted up into nothing. He took an empty seat near the middle, leaned back, and sighed. The smell of sun-baked vinyl seats was like a balm. A warm breeze washed over him from an open window. God, Kevin thought. Finally. The sense of relief was almost physical.

He flipped a middle finger at the school as the bus pulled away.

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