Who Was Your First Hero, Rich Smith?

Be Like Mike 

We moved from Kansas City to Poughkeepsie because mom and dad split. Mom needed some help, so she moved back in with her mom, Grandma Renee, who already had a full house. Roll call was: eight-year-old me, my younger sister, my mom, my grandma, my aunt, and my cousin, Michael. There we all were, in one dimly lit dining room, yelling at each other in Long Island accents over Chinese takeout. 

This extended family living situation was typical for the neighborhood. Tatum and his big, black family lived next-door. Next to him was Eder and his big, Mexican family. I ate salsa out of five-gallon buckets with Eder’s uncles. I played Mortal Kombat with Tatum and his brothers. Everyone made fun of me for wearing blue jeans and liking country music, but if some kid rolled me for my Italian ice as I was returning home form the corner store, I always had a friend with whom to conspire revenge. We spent a lot of time fantasizing about punch combos, effective blocks against the jab, and throws. 

We looked after each other, but on the soccer field we were vicious rivals. Our three houses shared a “backyard.” Dusty lot, shed with a basketball hoop, and a chain-link fence with no chain-links to block us from traffic. Such was our practice pitch. Teams were Eder and a bunch of his cousins vs. me, Tatum and his brothers, and Michael. 

Michael was a pit bull striker with a strong leg, and he was better than everyone. Mostly because he was a middle-schooler and everyone else was in elementary school. Even so, I was worse than everyone. Slow, awkward, weak, and dumb at the game. Eder and his cousins were quick of mind and quick of feet. They operated as one. Despite Michael and Tatum’s talent, we lost almost every scrimmage. If we were ever going to beat Eder’s family, it was clear Michael needed to train me. 

The Rocky movies were very popular at the time, as was Mortal Kombat. These were Michael’s chief sources of inspiration as a coach. A list and a brief explanation of the training games he invented will bear out this theory. 

One game was called Trip-it. The goal of Trip-it was to kick the other guy in the shins until he fell over. Michael would stand there and I’d kick him in the shins for a while, but he seemed nailed to the floor. When it was his turn, he’d kick me a bunch of times and then perform a leg-sweep and I’d go down. During Goalie Training, he’d make me dive on gravel and broken glass in front of the shed as he kicked rockets my way. In the snow, we’d play King of the Mountain, which is where Michael would climb to the top of a 15 ft. snow pile and throw ice balls at me.

Things came to a head the day I suffered a strangulated testicle. We were playing a game called, I think, Push-it. One boy would lie down on a couch, match up feet with the other boy, and then sort of struggle to push until the other guy kneed himself in the face. One time his foot slipped, and it racked me so hard that the next day one of my balls swelled up. The doctor removed it, twisted it back to its regular shape, returned it to its place, secured it with a little dissolvable brace, and sewed up the sack. I remember waking up on the table and seeing what looked like a spider on my scrotum. Stitches. 

Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. But I wanted enough. On the face of it, all this training was for soccer, but I needed to harden up. I felt like a boy. I was terrified of my school. In one of my classes, a girl had recently hit another girl over the head with a three-hole punch. A three-hole punch. Ambulance sirens sounded nearly as often as the release bell. And this was at a magnet school, the school that was supposed to be safer than the other schools. 

Moreover, I was being raised by a house of women. These were powerful, tough, incredibly angry women, women who had endured more violence than I have and perhaps ever will. But at the time I had it in my head that one must learn from a man how to be a man.

(I couldn’t see that my Aunt Sharon was the one who taught Michael how to be the man-boy he was at twelve. Quick sketch—Aunt Sharon yelling at a threatening kid while taking in laundry from line, smoking a long cigarette, and wearing a house dress: “You’re gonna burn my house down? I’m gonna burn your house down. You don’t say shit like that to adults. Where’s your motha?)

And Michael was invested in the project of my toughing, too. Like me his father existed but was absent. Like me he wanted a brother. So we watched pro-wrestling together and tried out the moves on each other. The Sharpshooter. The Razor’s Edge. We laughed at Andrew Dice Clay on television. He showed me my first centerfold; a red-head doing splits on bicycle seat, a poof of pubic hair peeking over her thigh.  

And I traded in my blue jeans for sweats. My t-shirts for basketball jerseys. I coveted the platinum necklace. I memorized rap songs. I learned the parlance. I was becoming the kind of boy who lived in my neighborhood. The boy who had to be hard at eight years old. 

And then finally I scored my first goal. Someone passed me the ball. I was in position. I pivoted and pounded the ball through the chainlinkless chain-link fence. The ball sailed through the opening, bounced onto the street and up into the undercarriage of a passing cab. The cab drove away with the ball stuck in its belly. 

Everyone groaned and kicked at the dirt. They cussed at me. They told me I needed to buy a new ball. That was going to be $22. Michael lifted me up by my armpits and twirled me in the air. 

Now I’m flimsy writer-type who wears blue jeans and a t-shirt. Michael went to war. Did three tours in Iraq. Lost some of his hearing as an artilleryman there. He works as a prison guard. He takes care of his mother in Queens. I’m a foot taller than him, but he’s a foot wider than me. Whenever we meet, he squeezes me and lifts me up into the air. 

Rich Smith

Rich Smith is the author of All Talk (Poor Claudia 2014) and the chapbook Great Poem of Desire and Other Poems (Poor Claudia 2013). He’s currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Central Missouri, where he edits poetry for Pleiades and serves as a board member of Pleiades Press.  Recently, his poems have appeared in The Continental Review, Tin House, Barrow Street, Jerkpoet, Cimarron Review and elsewhere. Find more poems and essays at www.richsmithpoetry.com