The first time I did it was on State Street. I walked right up to some guy I’d never seen before — he was wearing a raincoat, as I recall — and I punched him in the face.
He stumbled backward. At first, I thought he was going to hit me back, and I think he thought so too, but something stopped him. He squinted at me, angry but unsure.
“What’s your problem?” he demanded.
“You know damn well, you pig.” The words just came to me. I stalked off, leaving him with a bloody nose. When I looked back, he was trying to explain himself, like some repentant felon, to onlookers.
That was a year ago, before Delores saved me, before I began to realize I could save the world. Now each punch packs purpose. One day recently, under Delores’s watchful eye, I approached a dignified man reading the Wall Street Journal on the subway platform. My right fist tore through the front page and hit him like a 500-point drop in the Dow Jones.
He turned in a half-circle, staring inquisitively at his fellow commuters as if they knew something he didn’t.
“What?” he stammered, attempting to make order of his newspaper remnants. “What do you want?”
Then suddenly a beatific look came over his face. Delores calls this “redemption through contusion.” I left the punchee to revel in his dazed bliss. There was no need for thanks. I’m on a crusade.
Being struck in the face by someone you don’t know is unquestionably healthy: it plunges you into spontaneous and profound self-examination. “Did I know that man?” you wonder, remembering dozens of long-forgotten friends, classmates, neighbors, and co-workers. “What could I have done to deserve this?” you think, considering all the times you have insulted, cheated, or otherwise abused your fellow human beings. “Boy, that was weird,” you think, realizing the rut in which you’ve been living.
It’s the kind of cathartic experience for which many people in this town pay psychiatrists tens of thousands of dollars a year. I offer it free.
I’m no sadist. I find no great joy in this work, although there is a degree of professional satisfaction. Random violence, as I practice it, is a delicate task. You want to injure the punchee just enough to make him or her think, without causing any major damage. If the punchee ends up concentrating on the pain instead of wondering why it was administered, the operation is a failure. In other words, slugging someone has to be a means and not an end.
As the puncher, you’ve also got to make sure to be correctly indignant; otherwise, you can come off like a thug or a lunatic, in which case the punchee might dismiss the attack as outside of his or her control. That’s the last thing you want to happen. You have to seem like an otherwise rational human being who’s been pushed a bit too far by the individual you are whacking. You must appear to have an intense familiarity with the punchee. Most important, you must seem positively set on revenge. An American loves a vigilante, even as he’s giving the American a black eye.
Delores is thirty-nine years old. Most women her age passed through puberty with the aid of movies and jukeboxes, so their oldest and deepest sexual fantasies tend to involve the likes of Paul Newman or John Lennon. But Delores never cared about film or music, only comic books. She was a Navy brat and an only child who grew up without any steady playmates. Her many girlhood homes had in common bare walls, clean floors, a humorless mother, and a disciplinarian father. Comic books became her escape, her best friend, her first love.
Her obsession has never faded. Under Delores’s picture in her high-school yearbook, it says, “Ambition: to draw my very own superhero, then live happily ever after with him.” Delores is now one of the country’s top comic-book artists, creator of such cult classics as “HyperPlumber,” the man in spandex overalls who fights the evil that lurks down every drain, and “The Amazon,” a shapely eco-feminist who single-handedly saves Brazilian rain forests from the sinister minions of the misogynist loggers.
So, when Delores and I make love in, say, a public phone booth, it says a lot more about her than about me. But sometimes I do feel a little bit like Clark Kent. Before I began what Delores has dubbed the Crusade of Pugilism, my life was a study in Kentish mild manners. An average day consisted of going to work, crunching numbers, perhaps being lengthily abused over the phone by my ex-wife, leaving work, taking care of my parents, and going home to sleep.
My folks live on a quiet street in Marquette Park. My mother is not senile, but she gives that impression. Her actual condition is a practiced confusion, a conscious avoidance of understanding. This skill has, among its many benefits, enabled her to endure an unhappy marriage quite happily for forty-three years. The wrinkles around her eyes have set in a permanent squint, as if she’s trying to make out the words of a distant billboard. Her lips look as though she’s just said, “What?” and she regularly punctuates her thoughts with the phrase, “I just don’t get it.”
“I just don’t get it,” she says to me every evening as I walk in the door. “He doesn’t seem to be any better.”
“He has a tumor in his lung, Ma,” I mumble. “He might not get better.”
“Then what are all these treatments for? When will they know something definite? I just don’t understand.”
My father spends his days on a tattered sofa in a little den at the back of the house. He has an old fish tank back there, which, inexplicably, he keeps in operation although it hasn’t had fish for years. He kills hours staring into the bubbles, but most of his time is spent watching television.
“How are you, Dad?” I ask.
“The Cubs are up, four-to-one,” he’ll respond.
My father is not a man of many words, and when he does speak, it usually takes the form of objective observations about almost anything but himself. If he’s watching “Jeopardy” when I inquire about his health, he might say, “A woman named Hilda just won the Daily Double.”
He’s fine at telling stories, as long as they’re short and concern somebody else, but he’s always been unable or unwilling to conclude them with morals. For thirty-six years, my dad was a police officer. He was honored with dozens of awards for valor in the line of duty, and on several occasions his picture appeared in the newspaper next to a story about his bravery and daring. This always perplexed me. A hero was a man of action, I thought, and my dad was entirely passive. How could a guy who was sometimes speechless for days in his own home leap recklessly in front of a speeding automobile filled with shooting criminals?
“Car theft is against the law,” he would say.
Because he knows now that he’s going to die soon, I keep thinking that he’ll finally want to explain himself. It seems like a basic human need, unburdening one’s thoughts. Our conversations, though, continue to be every bit as frustrating as the one we had last year, a day or two after he was diagnosed. He was watching air bubbles dance up through fishless water. I took a deep breath, then said, “Dad, is there anything that I should know?”
He blinked into the glass for a few seconds. “The roof needs new shingles.”
“I’m already aware of that.”
“The insurance policies are in the safety-deposit box.”
“Dad, that’s not what I mean.”
“The safety-deposit box is at the First National Bank.”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“The First National Bank is at State and Washington.”
Later that night I had my first encounter with a punchee, the gentleman in the raincoat.
Before I met Delores, the act of stranger-punching was just flailing at flesh. She opened my eyes to the profoundly thoughtful looks on the faces of those I pummeled. She showed me the truth: I do people a favor by knocking them to the pavement.
I try not to discriminate. I’ve punched blacks, whites, men, and women; mostly adults, but even a few children who looked like they were headed for trouble if no one stepped in. Very few fight back, and the ones who do are restrained by passersby. The onus of guilt is on the punchee.
I’ve been charged with battery only once. A few days later, I wrote the punchee to explain why I had done it. Not only did he drop the charge, but he even sent me a thank-you card a couple of months later. It seems he had been offered a job in Dallas, and my wallop had made him realize how much he really hated Chicago. He wrote that he was getting along quite well in Texas.
I often pick Delores up after work. Sometimes we just wander the city for hours; she loves to be there when I am moved to slug. She pretends not to know me, then takes meticulous notes, even making a few quick sketches. If I punch someone when she’s not around, she wants to know all the details.
She’s been keeping an illustrated journal of my adventures, and recently announced that she plans to turn it into a comic book. The hero is named “Mr. Fist.” He looks like me, only with a lot more angles.
I’m not sure if it’s anything more than mere coincidence that the Crusade of Pugilism led me to Delores. But she’s convinced it was fate. When our paths crossed ten months ago at the corner of Monroe and Wabash, I barely noticed her. It was rush hour. I was on my way to purchase some shoes when I spotted a tall naval officer.
My instincts told me the time was right. I charged, catching him under the jaw with a solid left. He barely twitched. He just turned to me slowly, rubbing his face.
“You must be Harold,” he said.
I stared fiercely.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
I turned to leave.
“Damn it, it’s time. I’ve been sleeping with your wife for six years. I love Martha. . . .”
I turned back just in time to see another fist land squarely in his face. It was delivered by the smartly dressed woman with him who, I learned, was his spouse.
“Martha?” she said. “Martha? Martha your accountant? I may throw up, Jack.”
“I was going to tell you. . . .”
“I’ve heard all I need.” She kicked him in the leg. A crowd began to gather.
“This man, a rear admiral of the United States Navy,” she announced to the onlookers, “has been screwing a woman twice-fired by H & R Block, a woman who cost us over nine hundred dollars in IRS penalties last year alone.” She turned to me. “Harold, I’m Delores. I think we had better talk.”
It was then that I noticed her brown eyes.
Delores says the SPLUHD! of my fist against Jack’s jaw was her rebirth. “I suddenly understood that comic books are right, reality is wrong,” she told me after we made love that night. It didn’t make any sense to me, at the time.
Rear Admiral Whitherspoon and Martha were married three months later, two months after his divorce was final, and forty-two days after Delores and I were wed. It was a happy ending for everyone, except, I guess, Harold.
“I just don’t get it,” my mother said one night last week as she wiped a rag across the mantelpiece. In her world, dust is the basic unit of chaos. And the fact that she sees chaos everywhere else she looks only strengthens her determination to keep it out of her living room. She dusts each day, sometimes two or three times, moving from coffee table to chest of drawers, then — with the unsettling realization that a full thirty seconds of the dreaded particles have amassed in her absence — back to the coffee table. On this night, her pace was even more frantic. We had just returned from checking my father into the intensive-care unit.
She hurriedly dusted an ancient photo of the two of them — skinny and smiling, my dad actually kissing her girlish cheek — then moved to nearby knickknacks. Then she picked up the photo again and stopped.
“I just don’t understand,” she whispered, snapping her rag in the air.
At breakfast this morning, Delores was showing me samples from a new set of comic books that she’s been commissioned to do. The series is called “Philosophers in Action.” Its planners, according to promotional materials, envision it as “a completely new way to teach old ideas to today’s high-school and college students.”
The cover of one issue shows a muscular little guy in a beret and cape alongside a character who looks like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and Ben Hur. The two heroes are being crushed by a spherical monster with an evil grin.
“AIIIEEE!” the man with the beret is crying, in obvious pain. “We’re being ANNIHILATED by ABSURDITY!”
Slanting across the top of the page, in lightning-bolt script, are the words: “CAMUS AND SISYPHUS VS. AN UNINTELLIGIBLE UNIVERSE!!!”
“What’s old Sisyphus wearing?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” she said, “one of those gladiator get-ups.”
I mentioned that it might be a little unlikely for a figure of Greek mythology to be wearing clothes from ancient Rome. Delores clicked her tongue and sighed.
“You’re always worrying about unnecessary details,” she said. “When are you going to stop wasting your life on all these details? The world is simple, colorful, and concise, if you want it to be. From now on, I’m interested only in the parts of life with clever dialogue, built-in drama, fast-paced action, and overwhelming passion.”
This is the reason that she doesn’t ever want to have children, she says. It’s also, I assume, the reason that — other than the occasional perfunctory inquiry about my father’s condition — she doesn’t concern herself with my family. My mother, of course, finds her daughter-in-law’s standoffishness terribly confusing. I can only point out that Delores treats her own family with equal reticence. She mentions her own father so infrequently, for example, that I’m sometimes hard-pressed to remember his name.
One night, I left the hospital late. On the walk home, I walloped a guy, just because. He was drunk, and when I hit him, he sat down and started to cry. I could still hear him wailing a block and a half away. The truth hurts, I guess, and everyone’s got to face up to it sooner or later, but I felt sorry to be the messenger.
When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I had a pounding headache, and everything — the blue glow of the clock radio, the soft rattle of the breeze against the windows, the feeling of the silk pillowcase against my neck — made me apprehensive. Finally, I wrapped myself tight around Delores. In her sleep, she pushed me away.
“Baby,” I said, “I need to talk.”
“ ’Bout what?”
“Would you still love me if I were just a regular actuary?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “It’s too late for that. This isn’t Halloween dress-up anymore.”
Deep, steady breaths hissed through her teeth.
“Wake up,” I said. “I need somebody to talk to right now.”
She grunted and slid away. “Details,” she mumbled. “Details, details, details.”
While my father was watching me on the six o’clock news, I was in his hospital room, watching him. Up his nostrils were plastic tubes, which supplied him with pure oxygen while allowing him to talk — which was, however, unnecessary. For the last few weeks, he seems to have given up entirely on speech. The doctors tell us he’s in a lot of pain.
I’ve been nervous about the events that thrust me onto the screen that night. Delores, on the other hand, thinks the whole thing is a brilliant success. She’s right about one thing, anyway. The incident was a tribute to my intuition.
I had no idea who the guy was. He was walking down Adams slightly faster than everyone else, and it just seemed to me he might need a poke in the eye. I connected solidly.
“Your gig’s up, my friend,” I said. That’s when he handed me the gun.
I could have simply told the reporters that, yes, I knew he’d just robbed a CitiBank branch. I could have explained that I had chased him after the stick-up.
But I didn’t. They asked how I knew it was him, and, without thinking, I rashly said, “He just looked like someone who needed punching.” Suddenly there were calls from People and “20/20” on the answering machine, and my face on Dad’s TV.
My father watched, unblinking. His sunken, bluish sockets made his eyes bigger, brighter. I could hear myself saying something snappy on television, a bit of clever dialogue that would make Delores proud. The report ended, my face left the screen, and I waited. The anchormen exchanged pleasantries with the weatherman, and they both said good night. A commercial came on. His eyes didn’t move.
“What do you know, Dad?” I said, forcing a smile. “I’m a hero, too.”
He watched the commercial.
“I did it for you,” I said, not knowing why.
He turned his head to me, shut his eyes calmly, opened them, and drew a breath that made an airy whistle at the back of his throat.
Then he turned back to the television.
My sudden celebrity has put the crusade on hold, and I fear that it may be over entirely. Delores, on the other hand, thinks it’s just beginning. She announced at lunch today that she has all but closed a deal for the Mr. Fist series with Marvel Comics. A minor disagreement about movie rights is apparently the only holdup. My new manager, she told me, would be joining us for dinner to discuss talk-show appearances.
“You’ve got to come out of the trenches and lead others in the Crusade,” she said. “The whole world needs a good bopping, not just the Second City.”
Then she showed me her design for the first run of Mr. Fist T-shirts. In the research-and-development stage, she said, are Mr. Fist lunch boxes, Mr. Fist drinking mugs, Mr. Fist action figures, Mr. Fist key rings, Mr. Fist greeting cards, Mr. Fist adhesive strips, “Kiss my Fist” bumper stickers, Mr. Fist bubble bath, and a cookbook titled Mr. Fist’s Knuckle Sandwiches.
“In a few weeks, half of America will want to be just like Mr. Fist,” Delores proclaimed.
That’s exactly what I’m worried about. On my way to pick her up this evening, I felt someone squeeze my hand. It was an old man. There was nothing unusual about him, except that his eyes seemed to flash at me with recognition. I stood there, befuddled, while he put his hand on my shoulder, steadied himself, and, with some difficulty, unbent his neck and back so that his face was even with mine.
“Tell me everything, kid,” he said softly. “I’m all ears.” Then he pushed his coarse, cold lips gently against my cheek.
I knew just what he was up to.