[Note from the editor: This post constitutes the Rabbit Room’s 1000th post! Celebration is in order. Dance, cheer, toast your friends, and then come back and read this most excellent post by Jonathan Rogers.]
“It’s around here somewhere, boys,” I said, kicking at the pine straw. The lot was still vacant, but it was hardly identifiable, overtaken as it was by brush and vine and scrubby pine saplings.
It had been a full twenty-five years since I had been there; but still, how does a concrete house slab just disappear? I imagined eager souvenir hounds chipping it apart and carrying it away piece by piece. But that seemed unlikely. Could we be in the wrong spot? I sighted with a surveyor’s eye across the playing fields to the back exit of the school. No, this was the place.
It was past lunchtime, and I could see that my boys were losing interest. “Keep an eye out for broken teeth,” I said, “hanks of hair—that sort of thing.” They gave skeptical looks. This wasn’t working out the way I had pictured it. How many times had I told the boys about the Slab? How many times had I gone over the speech I would give when I finally took them to see the place for themselves. I should have sussed things out before bringing them cold like this. There we were, and the Slab was nowhere to be found. It seemed a shame, however, not to give my speech.
“Boys,” I said, “this ground was once stained with the blood of my enemies.” Was that an eye-roll I saw? Perhaps I was overstating the case. I started again: “Such deeds have been performed on the ground where we stand,” I said. “How many wrongs have been avenged on the Slab? How many boys have stepped onto the Slab and walked away—or were carried away—as men?”
I looked into the faces of my sons—eleven, twelve, thirteen—and it dawned on me that I was not much bigger than they when I had last been in this place.
Separated from campus by a gravel lane and a red clay ditch, the Slab was the venue for big after-school fistfights betweenWarner Robins Junior High students. There were spontaneous fights, of course, that popped up and played out as suddenly as summer storms, but the big, premeditated fights took place at the Slab, supposedly beyond the jurisdiction of Mr. Beck, the Assistant Principal. No matter now many times Mr. Beck crossed the ditch and the gravel lane to drag combatants back by the ear, we persisted in our belief that Slab fighters enjoyed an off-shore immunity that hallway fighters didn’t.
A hallway fight was simply a matter of action and reaction; the psychology was straightforward, centered around the fight-or-flight response. But a code duello obtained in a Slab fight, beginning with a challenge issued and accepted: “Meet me at the Slab.” In a Slab fight, that lapse between challenge and fisticuff—usually hours or a day or two—brought a whole new dynamic to bear.
No utterance spread through the student population faster than “Meet me at the Slab.” A Slab fight almost always had an audience, and often a large one. The fights were usually scheduled to start as soon after the 3:15 bell as possible. Spectators who rode later buses were often able to see the whole thing and still get to the bus line on time. Many bus-riders, however, made arrangements on Slab-fight days to walk home with friends who lived nearby.
As often as not, potential combatants had time to think better of a decision made in hot-headed haste, and the fight never happened. Would-be onlookers were left to derive such entertainment as they could from the opponents’ face-saving convolutions, which were a kind of sport themselves. (“Oh, you thought I was talking about your mother…well it was obviously just a big misunderstanding…”)
Of those Slab-fights that actually did survive the preliminaries and resulted in two boys squared off in the vacant lot, a high proportion resulted in more talking, some cautious circling, and a foot-shuffling headlock, if that.
But one Slab-fight during my tenure at Warner Robins Junior High was legendary. I forget the details of how it started, but one way or another my friend Mike felt it was his duty to defend the honor of a girl who had been insulted by a boy named Rusty. Mike issued the challenge. Rusty accepted it. And they agreed to meet at the Slab the next Wednesday, five days thence.
The fight quickly took on great symbolic significance. Rusty was one of the “hoods” who terrorized us from the day we entered seventh grade. Even in junior high they drank and smoked and put boys like me in trash cans. Rusty, to be fair, was one of the more agreeable of the hoods but there was a wildness in his close-set eyes that made me think he was capable of anything.
Mike, on the other hand—ah, Mike. One couldn’t imagine a finer champion for the “nice” kids. He was big and good-looking, an honors student, a star football player, the beloved son of married parents. Michelangelo’s David statue has always put me in mind of Mike. If he couldn’t whip Rusty, none of us nice kids could.
Which was exactly what I feared. I feared that Mike would step onto the Slab and get beaten to a pulp. The hoods’ oppression would go unchecked—and for how long? Through the rest of junior high, for sure. I understood that Rusty and his cronies weren’t going to be running the world when we grew up. But they certainly seemed to be running Warner Robins Junior High, and I feared what would happen if Mike failed in his one-man rebellion against the status quo. Would the hoods clamp down all the harder?
For five days, every lunchroom and recess conversation was devoted to odds-making for the upcoming fight.
“Mike’s going to win. Of course he’s going to win. Look how much bigger he is.”
“Okay, so he’s bigger. But how many fights has he been in? Rusty’s cagey. He’ll mop up the Slab with Mike.”
“But Mike has The Right on his side. That has to count for something. Doesn’t that count for something?”
By the time Wednesday finally rolled around, Warner Robins Junior High was whipped into a frenzy. Who could focus on school when such a momentous event loomed on the other side of the 3:15 bell? I, for my part, was so distracted that I was late for Math and was assigned fifteen minutes’ detention after school.
It was a worst-case scenario. Mike had agreed to let me be his second second. Our friend Ben was the real second; his chief duty was to carry Mike’s bookbag to and from the Slab–and, I think, to inform Mike’s family should the worst happen. In the event that Ben couldn’t perform his duties, I was supposed to stand in. But how could I stand in if I was in detention?
I spoke with Ben. “Is there any way you could slow things down this afternoon?” I asked. “I’ve got detention until 3:30. I don’t want to miss the fight.”
Ben shook his head slowly, gravely. “I’ll do what I can,” he said, “but I can’t promise anything.”
When 3:30 arrived, I leapt from my desk and sprinted down the hallway. I burst through the back exit, the one nearest the Slab, hoping I could still catch the fight. But as my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I saw a whole horde of junior high schoolers tearing across the playing fields back in my direction. And at the front of the crowd loped Ben, swinging a book bag in either hand, his head thrown back for joy. I caught him by the arm and swung him around.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We won! We won!” Ben whooped, as if he or I had done something. Boys and girls blurred past in their haste to get back to where they were supposed to be all along. “Mike threw one punch and Rusty went down and stayed down. One punch!”
I mostly felt relief. I was genuinely afraid that Rusty would hurt Mike. I felt exhilaration too, as if Mike’s triumph over Rusty were a triumph over oppressors everywhere. And I felt let down. One punch? Really? And I was in detention?
I looked back toward the Slab. Mr. Beck clutched Mike’s collar in one hand and Rusty’s collar in the other and was marching them across the gravel lane, down into the red clay ditch, and up the near side. Mike was grinning and rubbing the knuckles of his right hand. Rusty, red-faced and surly, kept his eyes on the ground.
Ben and I buzzed with unspent energy. We rode the bus to my house, where we beat the tar out of one another with boxing gloves. But after Ben went home, the excitement of the afternoon gave way to a sadness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But the gist of it was this: I knew already that somewhere between boyhood and manhood, the Rustys of the world would give way to the Mikes. I just didn’t expect it to come so soon. Eighth grade wasn’t over yet, and there was a good chance that Rusty was on the wrong side of his high-water mark.
In Houston County, the punishment for fighting was three to five days at Pearl Stevens Alternative School—Pearl, as we called it. Pearl’s permanent population was a mix of career delinquents and students who were too deeply disabled to make it in a regular school. It was an especially cruel and insensitive arrangement, lumping the system’s most vulnerable students with its meanest. I think it has been abandoned by now. Into that mix was thrown the short-termers like Mike and Rusty, for whom Pearl was a terror. It was customary for boys who went Pearl for fighting to come back buddies, their new friendship forged and hardened in the fires of adversity, like combat veterans from the same unit. Pearl is the kind of place where you can use a friend, and if the only person you know is the person you were fighting on the Slab last week–well, he’ll have to do. By the time they returned to the junior high, any animosity between Mike and Rusty was entirely spent. As I remember it, they even ate lunch together from time to time.
“What’s this?” my son asked. “Is this part of the Slab?” He was poking a stick at a piece of broken asphalt protruding from a tuft of grass.
“That’s asphalt,” I said. “We’re looking for concrete. Keep looking.” The more we looked, however, the more asphalt we found, split and broken by twenty-five years’ growth of vegetation. We never found the first piece of concrete.
Then it occurred to me. The spot we called the Slab wasn’t a slab at all. It was a patch of blacktop, maybe a bit of driveway. Another realization dawned: for all I had talked and heard about the Slab, I had never actually been there. I had seen the vacant lot from across the way, but I had never been to see the Slab itself. I was a nice kid, after all, and never wanted any trouble with Mr. Beck. The showdown between Mike and Rusty marked the first time my interest in a Slab fight had overmatched my desire to keep my nose clean. And even that had been thwarted by my math teacher…though, if you want to know the truth, it’s entirely possible that I drew detention on purpose so as to have a face-saving excuse for not crossing the ditch and the gravel lane to the wildness and danger of the Slab.
I already knew that the Slab’s significance in my imagination and memory had been exaggerated. I now realized that it was more than exaggerated: it was more or less fabricated.
I picked up a piece of asphalt and held it in my hand—a little chunk of my own personal mythology. And I made a new speech for my boys, a shorter one: “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.