By Kitty Shields
I am not making it to graduation on time, I thought, watching the fight outside escalate.
A black woman with a colorful head wrap on, and a big bag filled with daily life, came into the shop and right up to me.
“You better come outside and get your friend,” she said, gesturing at the scene just outside the window.
Bill was in the guy’s face, nearly touching chest to chest as they practiced their best Tarzan impressions on each other. Bill’s opponent had a solid fifty pounds and maybe two inches on him, but I wasn’t worried about it. Bill could handle himself in a fight. Plus, I was tired of apologizing for his temper. And I was hungover.
“Honestly,” I said, “I can’t talk him down once he starts. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
The woman’s eyes widened. She hadn’t been expecting that answer, or for me to shove the responsibility off on her. Shoving responsibility off—one of the things I learned in college.
“He’s got a bottle,” she said, gesturing again. “You’re lucky he doesn’t have a gun.”
Bill’s opponent hadn’t had the bottle when I’d gotten out of the car.
Traffic, man, it drives everyone fucking crazy. That’s what had started the whole mess.
Bill had picked me up this morning because the starter on my hand-me-down minivan was acting up again. He took me to grab my paycheck, and I promised him a cheesesteak in return. I was really grateful for the ride. Because I was hungover, I also needed the cheesesteak. Badly.
Anyway, we were half a block away from our favorite neighborhood hoagie shop when the driver in front of us stopped dead in the middle of the street. Bill leaned out the window and cursed at the driver. Obviously, that didn’t make things better. It certainly didn’t make the dead car magically start.
A guy leaned out of the passenger seat window and started flipping us off and swearing in Spanish. Not a surprise in this neighborhood. I would have done the same thing. Hell, my grandmother would have done the same thing. Cause that’s what you did in Philly. So would Bill, if the positions were switched. That didn’t stop Bill from leaning out his window to return the favor. And Bill’s Spanish was pretty good. To be fair, there were four cars behind us waiting, too. The douchebag and his girlfriend, who was the driver, were holding up traffic.
A fight was inevitable at that point. Before the chest banging and clenched fists could start, I told Bill I was going to walk to grab our sandwiches. He nodded mid “pinche idiota” and continued on with the back and forth. I hopped out of the car and walked the fifty feet to the sandwich shop as the shouting escalated in volume. I glanced into the car as I passed and saw the girlfriend frantically trying to restart the car. Starter problems—seems like we all have them.
By the time I ordered, the girlfriend had managed to turn the engine over. She immediately pulled off to the curb and got out her phone. I saw her hit her boyfriend, the Spanish curser, on the shoulder a few times while she dialed for help. Bill pulled over too, at the opposite corner right outside the shop window. The waiting cars zoomed by, but by some unspoken macho agreement, both Bill and the Spanish curser exited their vehicles to meet in the middle of the sidewalk and resume their screaming match. It was a hot mix of English and Spanish, and I’m sure Bill’s language teacher would have been horrified by it. I was kind of impressed.
As the fight raged, I saw the girlfriend in the driver’s seat talking rapidly into her phone, gesturing at the dashboard like the person on the other end could see it. About the time the black lady came in asking me to intervene, the girlfriend hung up and got out of the car.
The black lady abandoned me in the shop. Obviously, she thought I was a lost cause, not untrue really, and went back outside to the bus stop to enlist someone else. She convinced an older gentleman with a wool cap on and a weary-worn middle-aged man to approach the combatants. ‘Combatants’ may be a strong word. No one had thrown a punch yet. The Spanish curser held an empty bottle of Jack in his hand. Nothing like getting a good buzz on before eleven a.m., I guess. He waved it around a lot, but, like Bill, I knew that if he hadn’t used it yet, he wasn’t going to. Besides, Bill wasn’t backing down.
I wasn’t sure if that was stupidity or youthful recklessness on Bill’s part. I was pretty sure he was going to die at some point from this kind of behavior. He fought at every party, every bar we went to. It was compulsive. Really, I wondered what he was battling, but we didn’t talk about that stuff.
Maybe it was the fact that he was pretty ordinary—the plight of a suburban white kid with no talents or problems to separate him from the rest. Hell, he didn’t even have any good manias to make him interesting. I liked him because of that, of course, but then most of my family was batshit crazy. Between my bipolar mother who only took pills when the moon was high, my closet alcoholic father who only drank flavored vodka, and my seven siblings, finding normal was like finding a unicorn.
It must be tough to be normal, I thought. The only thing Bill had going for him was the band. And only drumming seemed to keep him level. We needed to have band practice more.
“Two cheesesteaks are up,” the guy behind the counter said.
I walked over and grabbed the two sandwiches and a bottle of soda, paid, and went back to the window.
The bottle of Jack was on the curb now, unbroken, and the bus stop people plus the girlfriend were trying to herd the opponents away from each other. Bill was standing near the corner, stone solid, ignoring the older gentleman who was trying to talk him down. He’d stopped shouting. Now he just watched the Spanish curser who circled clumsily around, trying to find a way back to him through the crowd. Bill never punched first. Again, no idea why. If he wanted a fight so badly, why didn’t he just go in fists a-blazing and be done with it?
I wondered why the Spanish curser hadn’t thrown either. Then I saw the bags under his eyes and the greenish tint of his skin. He was either hungover as fuck, like me, drunk still, or sick. Either way, he was probably not feeling as confident as he wanted. Plus, Bill’s fearlessness was obviously throwing him off. It was a little funny to watch.
I wondered if I should head outside. Instead, I opened my soda and took a sip. It was delicious. If I went out and helped end this now, I would get to graduation on time. I had mixed feelings on the subject.
Bill wasn’t walking in the ceremony today. He’d completed college. He could walk, he just wasn’t. When I’d asked him why, he’d said, “Fuck that shit, you know, man?” When I told him I was walking, he said, “I’m really proud of you, bro,” and gave me a fist bump. Bill was a complicated guy.
I knew I should walk. My parents had paid like a million dollars for me to get my shiny piece of paper. Plus, I’d dragged myself out of bed. I was awake now even if I was hungover. I had sugar in my system. I was about to have an awesome cheesesteak, and I had brushed my hair like I promised my dad I would. I should walk—
—but starter problems.
I burst out laughing. In his clumsy, half-drunken circling, the Spanish curser had been concentrating so hard on mean-mugging Bill that he hadn’t watched where he was going and tripped on the curb. He tried to play it off, but no one was fooled. Bill shook his head and walked back to the car. The bus stop patrol went back to the corner, and a tow truck arrived. The fight was officially over.
The poor Spanish curser was left alone at the curb, looking like a moron. I felt a little bad for him, but was more concerned with the fact that I was now back to making it to graduation on time. Well, maybe it would be good to have some closure to college or whatever. Maybe I would feel like the past four years was worth something when they handed me that piece of paper. Probably not, but there was always hope.
I just had no idea what I was going to do after walking across that temporary stage today. I sighed and checked the time. There was no avoiding it now. I was going to make it to graduation on time.
With cheesesteaks in hand, I walked outside and slid into the passenger side of the car.
“Dude, did you see that guy trip on the curb?” Bill asked as I handed him his sandwich.
I laughed again. “That was the best part.”
Bill looked refreshed after his fight. I wish I felt that good.
“Come on, though, I got to get to the ceremony,” I said.
“Right, right,” Bill said. “You nervous?”
“No, man,” I lied. “Just want to get it done.”
Bill nodded and opened his soda, taking a sip as the smell of the fried onions filled the car. “Well,” he said. “Just don’t trip on a step and you’ll be fine.”
If only it were that easy, I thought.
“Actually,” Bill said, “that would be a great way to end things. I mean, you’re going to start at the bottom again anyway. Might as well get it over with.”
“That was almost a deep thought,” I said.
Bill grinned and shrugged. “I almost learned to think deep in college.”
We both laughed.
Kitty Shields lives in Philadelphia, where she writes to try and overcome the fact that she was born a middle child with large feet and freckles. She graduated from Arcadia University with an MFA in Creative Writing in 2015. She has been published in After Happy Hour Review, Furious Gazelle, and Dark Fire Fiction. You can find her at kittyshields.com or @kittyshields on Instagram.