Macho

by Denis Clifford © 2004

"Did I ever tell you about the time I was the ringleader in a gang fight?" Brendan asked.

"No," Kelly answered, "you certainly didn't." At least, he didn't recall it.  The two men, both grandchildren of Irish immigrants, had told each other innumerable stories during their fourteen years of friendship.

"I was at a party in Pacific Palisades with some high school buddies--and there was Murphy, who'd stolen my girl, Cynthia."  Nostalgia spread over Brendan's Celtic, rugged face.  "Cynthia...the most beautiful woman I was ever involved with.  Cover girl on a Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue.  She...I won't give you the whole shot.  You got it, right?" Kelly nodded.  Brendan chuckled.  "Actually, Murphy hadn't stolen her.  We'd broken up, pretty much, a couple of months before."

"How come?"

"Oh, I was being an asshole.  Instead of pleading with me to come back, she took up with Murphy, from Fremont—public school, our big rivals.  At the party, we eyed each other like angry wolves.  He was cocky, cool.  I overheard him boast of an amazing time in a swimming race--he was a great swimmer--and I ... Let's say I indicated disbelief.  'You gonna say I didn't?' he snapped.  I had to answer back.  Part of the code.  He clenched his fists.  I turned sideways, in fighting stance, afraid he'd come after me, when I saw this buddy of his, Cogliamo--big guy, ballplayer--charging towards me.  I swung.  Get in the first punch, I knew that much.  Later I found out he wasn't looking for a fight.  He'd seen what was happening and said 'Uh oh.  Better break that up.'  I just nicked his shoulder with my punch.  He erupted, screaming insults, and punched.  I ducked and grabbed him in a head-lock and hung on...."

"Same defense I used to try," Kelly injected.

They reached Kelly 's locker in the Berkeley Y, a Spartan place of dull white walls, battered orange metal lockers, wood benches, bare light bulbs and red cement floor, often awash with puddles of shower water, rumored to cause dreadful foot diseases.  When their group returned from running at the Cal track, Kelly regularly changed his sweat-soaked T-shirt before moving on to the weight room.  Often Brendan, unwilling to interrupt their talk, accompanied him.

Kelly grabbed a clean T-shirt.  "Hold on," he called, trotting to the bathroom.

Alone, Brendan sank back into the despair that was haunting him.  A man of intense, volatile emotions, no woman thought it would be easy to be married to him, though many had imagined it would be wonderful.  For weeks, Brendan had been unable to shake feelings of failure, stumbling through the pressures of his lawyer's work with a tense ache gnawing deep in his chest.  He was incapable of love or passion.  His wife Patricia had attempted to console him; then, knowing how impenetrable he became in his darkness, she'd withdrawn.

All that day, Brendan had sat in a somber office in a San Francisco high-rise while John Smeckly, an insurance company's lawyer, ponderously grilled Brendan's client, Al Jones, on every subject conceivably related to his routine traffic accident and back injury.

"Now, Mr. Jones, you've testified that you used to play football.  Did you ever injure your back at any time during your football career?"

"Career?  Man, I told you.  That was in high school--twenty-eight years ago."

The lawyer's methodical gaze turned to Brendan.  "Mr. Reilly, will you instruct your client to answer the question."

Brendan did.  Mr. Jones said no.

The lawyer looked down to his yellow pad.  "Did you suffer injuries of any kind during your football career?"

Brendan sighed, knowing they'd waste hours more on what should have been covered in minutes.  Smeckly charged by the hour, but Brendan doubted that he was consciously milking the case for billable time.  Rather Smeckly prided himself on being a tough litigator.  The odd economics of corporate litigation rendered his plodding combativeness lucrative.

During a break, Brendan meandered in the halls of Upham, Wallshaw, Farquis, Smith & Bellarmine, watching three-piece suited, muted attorneys go quiescently about their tasks, adhering to their code.  The place exuded repressed, work-dominated male energy, without a drop of outlaw.

When the deposition resumed after lunch, Brendan saw, as if he were on acid, exactly what he was, a middle-aged man wasting himself on trivia, surrounded by men too blind or ambitious to see that they were trapped.

This wasn't going to happen to me, he silently berated himself.  During law school, in what was now called "the 60's," he'd been a seeker.  He'd worked as a civil rights lawyer in the South--Albany, Georgia and Jackson, Mississippi. Later he was a poverty lawyer in East Oakland, California.  His fears that he'd be crushed by what he called "the system" dwindled.  No more bullshit.  Somehow, he and his generation would create a grand egalitarian life where people weren't obsessed by success.  He'd never clarified what legal work he'd do, except that it would be socially meaningful, interesting, and adequately paid.  "Doing well by doing good," he now called that naive jangle of dreams and self-interest. But the wave of change he rode on flattened out.  He became disillusioned with lawyering for social justice. which produced at best, mostly paper triumphs.  And he realized that he no longer had--if he ever had--the soul of an activist.  His passions had become private--his family, music, nature, athletics.  Nevertheless, with two kids, he had to work. The Movement, smoking dope and cosmic insights surely hadn't created an economic utopia.  No, money had triumphed. Kelly had joked that President Reagan thought "Since the poor lost the war on poverty, they'll have to make reparations to the rich."  Yeah, I know," Brendan answered.  "And we blew it.  Instead of trying to overthrow society, we should have been buying real estate."

Brendan had become a partner in a three-man Berkeley law firm, which provided some satisfactions.  As he said, "They can carve on my tombstone, 'At Least He Beat The Commute.'"  He liked his office colleagues, and occasionally enjoyed the human drama or shark cunning of lawyering.  Also, he did earn a modest living--at the cost of pressure, conflict, tension.  Burdened with anxieties about his clients' cases, he was forever behind.  The stack of unanswered phone messages on his desk seemed to rise inches daily.  Yet, for all his hard work, and Patricia’s part-time salary, they had just enough to provide adequately for their family, plus occasional splurges on a meal out or a movie.  "The truth is," he'd told Patricia’, "I'm almost a failure."  Worse, he had no vision for change.  Family life was costly, even with their frugal style.  And his son would start college in less than six years.  Not that he blamed his kids.  He'd always wanted kids; providing was a matter of sacred duty.  No, there wasn't any blame, but somehow he'd lost it.  His story was over.

The night before, he'd refused dinner, then gorged on peanut butter, spooning it straight from the jar while tormenting himself with accusations of failure, as if he could only be happy if he were a grand success--a movie director perhaps, or, at a minimum, a wealthy lawyer.  He lectured himself that he should be appreciative.  Didn't he love his wife and kids?  And he loathed self-pity.  There were people in South Africa, Chile, everywhere, really suffering.  And lawyering surely beat driving a bus.  And … yeah, there are so many ands, he thought, but the truth is I don't feel alive unless some part of me is living on an edge.  I can't go on being just a good worker, a good father, a good husband.

Getting into bed, he told Patricia he thought the worst was over; he'd feel better in the morning.

"I think I can bear your despairs," she told him, "but I can't stand your fake optimism."

"Yeah. ....” She did know he might really lose it.  "I've been thinking about my father”—an alcoholic, ineffectual man.  She sighed.  She'd heard of his father often recently.  Brendan heard her sigh, and was reminded that their love could die, not merely pass through another drought.  He felt only coldness, but knowing he should appear to try, he drew his head to hers and whispered, "I will get it back."

"Be nice if it's this year."

Tonight running, usually the most reliable of restoratives, hadn't freed him.  He'd been sunk in work too long; running was all labor.  Even being with Kelly, his closest friend, hadn't exorcised his demons.  He needed Kelly s animal presence, but knew talk, advice, or sympathy wouldn't help.  He needed faith.

Kelly finished chatting with some basketball player colleagues and returned.  He reached out and touched Brendan on his shoulder.  "You gonna be alright?"

"It shows?"

Kelly shrugged and smiled, reminding Brendan how deeply they knew each other's souls.  Since they'd first met in a poverty law office, the two had shared backpacking, parties, work-outs, hundreds of showers, and, above all, talk, often intimate discussions trying to clarify their lives, to understand how the dreams they'd released in the 60's were evolving.

"How's work?" J Kelly probed.

"Oh man...." Brendan recounted the absurdity of his day.  "... and they make big money from that."  He shook his head.

"As you say," Kelly noted, "society rewards the wrong things."

"I did say that, didn't I?" Brendan chuckled.  "At the end of it today, I ran into some lawyers I know, who invited me out for drinks.  Tempting--stay and keep killing myself." Kelly, who shared Brendan's impulses to self-destruction, knew how tempting that must have been.  "Somehow, I decided to come over here and try to stay alive."  Brendan's face suddenly flashed defiance.  For a moment, he looked like a pirate, with his roughish mustache and aura of boldness.  "Ah, fuck that stuff."

"So anyway," Brendan resumed his story, "Cogliamo broke free.  He was furious, screaming that I had to apologize or he'd kick my ass.  Of course I couldn't apologize.  He raged at me, raised his fists, and we squared off.  I knew I'd have to fight—very reluctantly, 'cause I was never much of a fighter."

"I doubt that," Kelly objected.  He imagined Brendan would have been a formidable opponent, with his stocky swimmer's body and his killer instinct, which surfaced now only when he did a trial, or, more frighteningly, if he thought someone threatened Patricia or his kids.

"Well, I wasn't up to Cogliamo," Brendan continued as he pushed open the door to the weight room.  Its decor was similar to the locker room:  white walls, bare light bulbs below metal shades and a red floor, this one with a worn carpet.  The one window looked out to a small hallway.  Scattered around the room were weights, benches, barbells and a few rudimentary machines.

"Oh no!"  Juan, 200 pounds of muscle and grace, shouted from across the room, "I'm gonna stop smoking that funny stuff.  Now I'm seeing things.  Some guy just came in who looks exactly like that guy Wendon or...Brendan … who used to come in here a long time ago ... except this guy's a lot fatter."

"I repent," Brendan hollered back.  "This is it.  My final comeback."  He ambled over to Juan and watched him finish a set of curls.  "Your back's curving a lot," Brendan's voice hinted at restrained scorn, "but I guess at your age you have to start taking it easy."

They bantered on as other weight-lifters smiled and laughed.  Then Brendan ranged around the room, greeting many of the two dozen men there:  Ben, a former pro football player, immensely strong, the papa bear of the weigh room; Walt, blond, handsome, who'd once told a lover who insisted she tell him her feelings, "Look baby, you can tell me any feeling about me you want to, as long as it's approval"; Ken, whose massive body looked sculpted after a Greek archetype; Jesus, his legal name; the heavy weight-lifters.  "Hey man...How's it going? … Good to see you....Hi buddy....Trying to get it right...."  Shoulder slaps, handshakes, soul-shakes, high-fives:  stylized acknowledgments of respect and friendship between men who rarely encountered each other elsewhere.  Before Brendan became a weight room regular, the room was often quiet.  Mostly people kept to small groups, usually of their own race.

"So what happened?" Kelly asked when Brendan joined him again.

"Just as Cogliamo went for me, about ten guys grabbed us and held us back.  I tried to look like I was struggling to break free, while terrified that he would.  He kept hollering, 'Let me go!  I'll kill the fucker!'  They held on.  Finally he stopped struggling and shouted, 'O.K. Brendan, we'll settle this some other time.'  'Anytime,' I snarled back.  Next thing he'd set our fight for the next Saturday, at Seaside Park.  'At noon,' he taunted, 'unless you're yellow.'  'I'll be there,' I vowed."

Ray finished his stomach crunches and walked near them.  "Hey Ray," Kelly waved him to stop.  "I think you'll like this."

Brendan smiled at Ray.  "Thank you man.  I needed that run tonight."  Ray, a short, stocky man who'd resigned from corporate life to become a personnel administrator for the City of Berkeley was their unofficial running leader.  Brendan first led Kelly to the Y eleven years before.  They'd both learned that health was basic, and lawyering sure wasn't healthy.  Brendan knew he'd only maintain athletic discipline by surrendering to a group.  Shortly after they began lifting weights, Ray prodded and cajoled them into trying running.  Rapidly, they became the devoted nucleus of Ray's group.

"O.K.," Brendan summarized the start of his tale, feeling a surge of affection for Ray.  He could pontificate, but if Brendan were starting a wartime platoon, he'd surely want Ray in it.  Several years before, Ray had arrived at the Y with a large bandage covering a cheek.  While running, Brendan realized that Ray was struggling painfully, though he gutted it out and finished the three miles. Walking back to the Y, Brendan insisted on learning what was wrong.  Eventually, Ray revealed that he had been operated on for skin cancer that morning.

"So..." Brendan continued, "Cogliamo and I kept shouting at each other.  A couple of my friends joined in, then a couple of his.  Pretty soon they were almost into it.  Next they were all screaming that they'd meet at Seaside Park too."  He waved his wrists in circles, indicating adolescent insults and rages careening out of control.  "By the time we left, we had a major battle going.  Then it got real crazy.  All sorts of people joined up.  Guys from my high school—tough hoods I hardly knew—came up and assured me, 'Nobody's gonna kick St. Catherine's around.  We'll be there.'  By Monday night it was a gang fight, us against Fremont."

He paused, grinning at other regulars who'd gathered around.

"By Wednesday the thing had escalated into a city-wide war—West LA against East LA.  There was so much tension in school I felt I could grab it.  At home I was so fearful even my little brother noticed.  Of course, at school I had to look cool, while it got worse every day.  Guys were talking about bringing chains, knives ...."

"Machine guns?"

"Really, I'm telling you.  It was one of those crazy times when everything bad clicks."

Brendan felt the exuberance story telling released in him.  Grab it now, he knew, nodding towards Juan at the bench press.  "Can I work in with you guys in a minute?"  Standard etiquette:  permission was always granted.

"You mean you're going to do something more than talk?"  Juan pretended to be dumbfounded.

Brendan laughed.  "You know, this place is just like my grandfather's Irish bar—except that for every time he drank a shot, I lift a weight."

He returned to his tale.  "So I was trapped.  A couple of mean Chicanos, from some ominous street gang, came up to me and said, “'We’ll be there man, backing you all the way.  You better not chicken out.  We're gonna whip ass.'  Thursday night I felt condemned.  One more day before I'd be maimed for life, if I lived.  Friday morning—out of the blue—I'm called in by Father Corbett, the Principal.  He looked very grave, sterner than I'd ever seen him—and he wasn't a jolly man.  'I understand you are going to participate in a fight at Seaside Park on Saturday,' he announced.  I mumbled some evasion, and he cut me off.  'Do not deny it, young man.  I know all about it.'’ I just nodded my head.  'In that case,' he went on, 'clean out your locker when you leave here this afternoon.  Anyone who participates in that fight will be permanently expelled from St. Catherine's.'"

Brendan grinned with animated fascination at the twists of life. "I left that office higher than I've ever been.  Nothing--absolutely nothing--I've ever done in my life--not making love, not backpacking in the Sierras, not my first kid being born--nothing ever made me as happy as Corbett's edict.  I had a way out.  It was O.K. to call it off.  I couldn't be expected to get expelled, ruin my whole life, for a fight.  We were too close to immigrants for that.  So I put on a grand show—too bad guys, but my hands are tied.'"  Brendan waved his hands freely.  "Quickly, it all vanished.  Nobody—not even the hoods—really wanted to fight.  Certainly nobody was angry at me."

"You're up," Juan notified him.

"Ah...um..." Brendan waivered.  Etiquette frowned on delay.  "A couple of weeks later," he snuck in as he lay down on the bench, "I found out that Cogliamo's principal had called him in that Friday too, and told him the same thing.  If he fought he'd be expelled.  He--as I learned much later--was as delighted to escape as I was. And then..." he laughed, pleased with his timing, and grabbed the bar, weight 175 pounds.  By the seventh rep he was panting and struggling.  The tenth rep forced his limit of concentration and energy.  For agonizing seconds his arms trembled as he strained to lift the bar while his audience shouted encouragement.

"PUSH!  PUSH!"

"Lock it out!  Lock it out!"

"PUSH!!!"

"Come on you got it."

“ALL RIGHT!!!”

The bar securely in the rack, Brendan slumped on the bench, his arms dangling by his sides.

"Good set," Walt complimented as Brendan sat up.

"It's a start.  You know...this place is like life.  You work hard, you can stay even."  He stood up, stretching his arms high, inhaling deeply.  "Ah...I think I'll live."

"And then...." He leaned forward against a wall, gathering his audience.  "About four years later, my mother told me what happened.  She had figured out what was going on.  Added up what I'd let slip at home with what she'd learned somewhere else.  Anyway, she knew.  She called Cogliamo's mom and told her.  They agreed: we must stop this fight, or somebody may get seriously hurt, but of course we can't let these silly boys learn we had anything to do with it.  They discussed it and my mom came up with the idea of both of them calling the Principals and having them warn us we'd be expelled.  Thank god for mothers."

His listeners laughed, then drifted off, resuming their exercises.  For the next hour Brendan and Kelly reflected on implications of Brendan's story, and joined in the flow of energies through the weight room.  Sometimes effort:  strain, the clang of iron, lungs exhaling. Sometimes swirls of talk:  gossip, vitamin tips, movie critiques, opinions of women, political commentary.  "Let me know if the Russians get to San Jose," Juan said.  "'Cause if they try to come here, I'm ready to fight."

Brendan lay down on a bench, grabbed two thirty-five pound dumbbells and muscled through a set of flies, forcing his wrists and arms up as if his demons were embodied in the force of gravity.  Dropping the dumbbells, he sighed with satisfaction and stood up, reveling in the warm sensations in his muscles.  Suddenly he realized that the ache buried in his chest was gone.  His body was centered, whole.  Feeling graceful, he ambled slowly, with a slight thrusting saunter, to the chinning bar.

"That's the way," Juan called.  "You don't get this stuff from cans."

Brendan smiled.  "Our Pequod," he'd once called the mix of men who shared the weight room, compatriots all, no one whose lust was money.  They helped him back to his dreams.  "God, I love this place," he whispered to Kelly "If only sex were this dependable."

Brendan felt his spirit heal. He refused to be ground under by work, to devote his life to money.  Undefeated, he knew the vitality surging through him would enable him to regain his vision. Kelly abruptly glanced at him as if he'd spoken his realization aloud.  Their eyes met, and both grinned with affirmation.

Minutes later, they sat luxuriating in the steam room, heat soothing and revitalizing them as sweat dripped off their faces.  Brendan breathed deeply, slowly, as if he'd recovered his health after an illness.  Life--plain old ordinary living--was precious again.  Time seemed to slow.  Sensing his wildness flow untamed, and feeling at peace, with an animal optimism pervading him, he reached an arm around Kelly 's shoulder.  "Thank you, man.  Thanks for all the years and for being a dreamer and … All of it."  He wondered what the edge he'd find soon would be.

[1987]