It was all in the newspapers, and on the radio and the television, that Billie Jean King had just defeated Bobby Riggs on the tennis court, in what the sports world had called “the battle of the sexes!”
That was the year I fought my “battle of the sexes,” too.
But the two “battles” were different! See, Billie Jean King was a grown-up, seasoned professional who had fought her battle in Houston’s magnificent Astrodome Stadium, and was transported to her battle, Egyptian-style: she, dressed like Cleopatra, her bare-chested footmen, dressed like ancient slaves, all greased down and muscled-up to the neck. While I, Addie Pearl Henderson, just entering middle school, fought my battle down near the city dump, on the other side of the railroad tracks, and was carried there on the handlebars of my little brother’s bike, which he called his “fleet Schwinn,” but which was nothing but an old, rickety rig!
My outfit was one of my sister’s hand-me-downs, a limp, washed-out dress, which had probably been bought at the Salvation Army. But my battle was just as great as Billie Jean’s.
What made me fight the boy was that awful lie he kept telling, that I was going to give him “some ussy-p!” That’s pig-Latin for the real word, which he used.
The first place he said it was in the school lunchroom, filled to capacity with wild-raised children. The noise level almost drowned out the boy’s words. But I’d heard him, just the same, and so had others.
“You see that girl right over there? She say she gonna gimme some…!”
A loud, mocking-chorus of “Ooooo’s!” filled the lunchroom, and I joined my own “Oooo’s” with the collective “Oooo’s,” unsure of where the boy’s finger was pointing. Then, still glancing around me, up and down the line, for the girl he might have meant, I was swept forward by giggling children.
Some weeks later, at recess, there he was again. This time, I was certain he was pointing at me.
“You see that girl right there…?”
Who was this boy? Did I resemble the girl who had made him the promise? Was he simply showing out for his buddies, or was he out of his mind? The mystery overwhelmed my ability to react, and so I simply gave him a dirty look and moved as far away from him as I could. I was able to lose myself on the crowded schoolyard, where I knew no one, on these first days at middle school.
I thought of going to tell my homeroom teacher, but what if she asked the boy’s name? How would I identify him in such a big school? How could I bring myself to say that vulgar word he had used? Would I be blamed for provoking the boy? Each day, I thought of nothing but wanting to beat the boy up?
I remembered what my brother Jimmy had said about fighting: “You gotta fight like the Panther. When the Panther gets threatened, he backs off. But if the fool keep coming, it’s on and popping!”
Jimmy’s words flashed before me, as I recalled the notations I’d seen in my mother’s bible.
Tom, a son: a run-away at age 12; missing for five years.
Jimmy, a son: married by shotgun, drafted at age 18; sent ‘cross the water by Uncle Sam.
Oscar, a son: married by shotgun at age 16, but still coming back with his hands out.
My brother Tom was the neighborhood “battle-boy” and had won money in the big bear-wrestling contest the carnival brought to town! “I wish Tom would come back,” I mused. “He would pulverize that boy!”
But all I had was Benny, Jr, my youngest brother, who was far from being bear-wrestling material. How could a scrawny ten-year-old fight my tormentor? And how could I fight him without getting into trouble, at school and at home?
Billie Jean King had trained for years before taking on her opponent. I had never had an opponent, and how could I prepare for such a fight as this? The feeling of dread followed me everywhere. Something was coming, but I knew not when.
One evening, Benny Jr. and I had been sent to a store some distance from home, to catch a sale.
As soon as we rounded the corner, I spotted the boy. “Benny, Jr., there go that boy who be bothering me at school. That’s him with them other boys? He the one with the red shirt.”
I knew he had seen me. We parked the bike and hurried into the store, taking our time shopping for the items, to give the aggressors plenty of time to go their way.
But when we exited the store, there they were!
“Don’t look at ‘em, Benny, Jr. “
“Hurry up and get on, Addie. I’ll pump real fast, and make my fleet-Schwinn fly! They won’t catch us!”
But my trembling hands took too long to tie the groceries on the luggage-carrier, and when I looked up; the aggressor was upon us, grinning and gloating like the wolf who’d just spotted the lamb and followed by his scruffy army of punks. He grabbed the handlebars and would not let us move.
With as much bravado as he could muster, Benny, Jr. ordered, “Leave my sister alone!”
My heart sank. What if the boy should repeat that awful lie in front of my brother? What if Benny, Jr. should tell our father, who always sent him to chaperone me, with instructions to report my every exchange with boys?
I was a cornered Panther now. Ready or not, it was fight or flight!
Sure enough, the boy repeated the lie. What unfolded afterwards was nothing short of a volcanic eruption, governed by its own natural laws of spontaneous combustion, from an inner fire-storm which had gathered inside me for weeks. My tormentor grabbed his crotch in a vulgar gesture.
“Come here, girl. Don’t you want it? You ‘member you said you was gonna gimme some …Ow-ow-owww!”
That was my fist, plugging up his mouth before he could get the word out.
As he howled and stumbled back, the momentum of my attack pushed him into a clump of bushes, and pinned him there, as he flailed blindly. Benny, Jr. flung his bike in the path of the other boys, to block their interference.
“Get away from my sister!”
Meanwhile, “Mr. Ussy-P” tried to grab onto something to get a footing, but the bushes kept bobbing him up to meet my fists. I went looney on him! His buddies mocked him…
“Ooo, Don! She bust’ing your ass, man!”
So that was his name! “Don!” Some workmen, digging in a near-by ditch, heard the commotion and scrambled up to the surface, to watch.
“Come see this, y’all! It’s a boy fighting a girl! No, I take that back. It’s a girl fighting a boy! She doing all right, too. Ooo-wee! Ouch…! I know he felt that…!”
“I got two bucks riding on the girl! Go, little sister!”
When “The Don” was finally able to disentangle himself, he went for a brick and drew back his hand to bash me with it! But the workmen rushed forward.
“Hey…hey! Don’t you do that, boy! Put that brick down! She didn’t fight you with no brick and you ain’t gonna fight her with none!”
When all the men surrounded “The Don” and disarmed him, he and his army slunk off, exchanging impotent growls.
“She just got in a lucky lick!”
“Shut up, boy! She beat you fair and square! You better go’on about your business. I bet’not hear-a you bothering her no’mo! I know where to find you…don’t you think I don’t!”
“Damn! She was fighting him hard. What did he do to you, little daughter?”
“Probably something he ain’t had no business doing.”
“If I was a fight manager, I’d sign her up.”
Out of breath and trembling with rage, I was too choked up to speak. Then, Benny Jr. became my voice. “He come lying on my sister!”
That’s what I wanted to hear my little brother say, that he knew the boy was lying. Tears of love and gratitude flooded my eyes, and I broke down in sobs.
The men began comforting me. “There, there…it’s over now. Pull yourself together and y’all go’on home.”
“Ooo, Addie! We gonna get a whipping!” I heard Benny, Jr. saying.
That’s when I sobered up and saw the broken eggs, cornmeal, flour, sugar…a whole week’s worth of groceries, spread over the sidewalk. As I helped Benny, Jr. gather up what could be salvaged, he whined on and on…
“Addie, we gonna get a whipping. Mama gonna make daddy whip us! We gonna get a whipping!”
I was resigning myself to getting the whipping, but my brother’s pitiful whining was more than I could take, and soon, there we both were, standing in the midst of the ingredients, weeping helplessly, like lost waifs.
And then, we felt money being pressed into our hands. One by one, the men had gone in their pockets until we had more than enough to repurchase the items. Calm now, I told the men what the fight had been about. “See, mister…at school, that boy always be bothering me and saying stuff…”
Benny, Jr. took over. “Mister…he come talking ’bout my sister was gonna give him some pu..pu..ussy-p-p…!”
He couldn’t even get the word out straight! Even in pig-Latin, the word sounded awful. So I stopped him. “Hush, Benny, Jr. Just hush!”
“Now, ain’t that a shame!” one of the men said. “Can’t even go to school in peace! Well, you just gave him a good ass-whipping! Don’t you worry…ain’t nobody believing him. We can see he’s a fool!”
The other men chimed in their agreement. We thanked them all and prepared to go home.
I looked a mess! My clothes were torn and my hair stood up on my head like cuck-a-burrs. Benny, Jr. lovingly brushed the debris from my clothes and hair. Then, he removed one of the safety pins that held up the baggy pants that swallowed him and pinned up my torn blouse.
“I wanna go home now, Addie.” Benny, Jr. said. “We don’t need to catch the sale now ‘cause the men gave us enough money to buy everything at Stewart’s Store, on Market Street.”
I agreed and hurried to get on the bike.
Then, Bennie, Jr. assured me, “Addie, I’m not gonna tell mama and daddy you was fighting.”
Then, as my little brother helped me onto the handle-bars of his “fleet Schwinn” and rode me through the streets in triumph, fresh tears watered the bumpy streets, all the way to Stewart’s Store.
This work is one in a series, entitled, The Day Stories of Addie Pearl Henderson. The author’s works have appeared in several anthologies and reviews, including The Ponder Review and Perrine’s Literature. Her awards include a New York Drama Desk Award, a John F. Kennedy New American Play Award, and, most recently, she was one of the top three winners in the Tennessee Williams Inaugural 10:4 Tenn National Ten-Minute Play Contest.