The Fourth of July square dance was an affair Reid Choate had looked forward to ever since he was old enough to do so. The dancing never appealed to him. His main enjoyment came from seeing people he had not seen in quite some time. As a kid, it was a good time to see the buddies he had not seen since the last day of school. Since graduating from high school, the square dance had become a mini class reunion.
“Daddy, can I get some cotton candy?” asked his daughter, Amanda.
Reid pulled two crumpled one dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to Amanda. She scurried off in complete happiness. A child’s fascination with cotton candy never ceased to amaze him. It was stickier than ice cream and ate away at the corners of his mouth. The only solace was that the vendors at the square dance only charged two dollars. The vendors at Ringling Brothers charged ten.
“Gimme some of that,” said his son, Frank, when Amanda returned.
She opened the bag and let Frank grab a hunk of the bluish sugary wool. Their mother, Debbie, reached over Amanda’s shoulder and took just a pinch.
“I’ll bet you I could eat a whole bag of this,” said Amanda, the sides of her mouth already blue.
“I’ll bet you can’t,” said Frank.
“Well we’re not going to find out,” said Debbie.
Reid tore off a little piece of the candy.
“Ain’t no way either one of you is having much,” he said. “Eat more than a handful and you’ll end up puking your guts out.”
“We made Patrick Lane eat a whole bagful of it at the fair last year,” said Frank. “He didn’t hurl.”
Debbie grabbed Frank’s arm and turned him towards her.
“You did what?” she asked.
“When Ms. Rollins took us to the Tennessee Valley Fair last fall, a bunch of us pinned Patrick in the corner and made him eat a whole bag at one time,” answered Frank.
Reid stopped walking and looked at his wife for a moment, hoping she would handle the scolding herself. When she just stared right back at him, he looked to the ground and sighed.
“Son,” he said. “I ain’t gonna put up with you pickin’ on a kid who’s smaller than you or weaker, and I definitely won’t have you doin’ it while a bunch of boys are cheerin’ you on.”
Debbie frowned. The band had stopped playing but there was an unusually loud commotion erupting by Silo’s Bakery, which sat on the opposite end of the town square where the dance was held. They all looked over to see that folks were walking up to shake hands with the biggest athlete to come out of Ashburn County since Bobby Lee, an NFL linebacker from the 1950s.
“Who’s that?” asked Amanda.
Reid picked up his daughter and rested her on the crook of his arm.
“That’s Kermit “Frogger” Dalton,” he said. “He went to high school with your Momma and me and then set out for Philadelphia after we graduated.”
“Philadelphia, Tennessee?” she asked.
“Nah, Sweetie. There is a much bigger Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. He went there and became a professional boxer and did pretty good. He fought as a welterweight.”
“What’s a welterweight?” asked Frank.
“He weighed 147 pounds and fought other guys who weighed that much too,” answered Reid. “Y’all ever heard of Shane “Machine Gun” Viturbo?”
“He’s a champion, isn’t he?” asked Debbie
“Was,” said Reid. “He’s retired now. Kermit fought him for the title about five years ago. He lost, but made enough money to buy his own car dealership. You know what they call it?”
His family blankly stared at him.
“Frogger’s Ford,” he said with a high pitched laugh. “Does pretty well from what I hear.”
“Doesn’t he look good kids?” said Debbie.
Reid glared at her. She said that only because she thought he was being too hard on Frank. But she was right. For all those in the Class of ’91, Frogger looked like he had taken the best care of himself. He certainly had added a little padding to his fighting weight but was 160 or 165 at best. His hair looked like he had required more than a barber’s touch and his polo shirt and khakis were definitely designer wear. It did not give Reid any solace over the expanding mound protruding from his overalled belly. And the smooth-legged wife on Frogger’s arm only reminded Reid that Debbie seemed to have little concern for her blackening incisor and fraying strawberry blonde hair.
“He’s a little too pretty by my standards,” said Reid.
Frogger continued to press flesh in the crowd, giving hugs, and smiling constantly, all the time scanning the square dance’s attendants while doing so. When his eyes met Reid’s, they narrowed and a scowl appeared on his face. Reid pressed his first two fingers against Debbie’s elbow to turn her in the opposite direction.
“It’s getting awful late,” he said, “and we ain’t gonna have a free night all week with revival and all.”
Despite Amanda and Frank’s protests, they turned in the opposite direction of the crowd towards the old Western Auto lot, where Reid’s truck was parked. Once Frogger saw them leave, he ended the pleasantries and broke away from the crowd to follow Reid at a breakneck pace.
“Hey Reid Choate,” he maliciously screamed.
They were 20 feet from the truck, close enough to get in and drive off, but Reid stopped. He sighed and turned around to face Frogger, who was within striking distance of him. The two stared at each other before Debbie punctuated the silence.
“Why hello Frogger,” she said. “You’re lookin’ good.”
“That your Ford Ranger with the ‘If it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible’ bumper sticker?” asked Frogger.
“Interesting,” said Frogger. “I never remember you witnessing to anybody when we were in school. What would you say if I told you that I was a Scientologist?”
Reid feigned a smile.
“Not much,” he said. “As long as I knew you knew that Jesus Christ was your savior.”
“What if I didn’t?” asked Frogger.
His jaw muscles clenched.
“Then I would pray that you found him,” said Reid.
“You mean you wouldn’t beat me into doing so?”
“That ain’t my way no more,” reiterated Reid.
Frogger grinned and turned to Frank.
“Did you know your father when it was?”
Frank shook his head. Reid let out a deep sigh.
“Frogger, can’t we settle this in private?” he pleaded.
“No,” said Frogger. “We can’t.”
He bent down to Frank.
“Your father gave more boys more wedgies than anyone in the history of the school,” said Frogger.
Frank gave a snorted chuckle.
“Laugh,” said Frogger. “That’s the nicest thing he ever did to ‘em.”
“Frogger, please,” begged Debbie.
He shot her a seething grin and continued.
“I’ve hated your father ever since career day in the seventh grade,” said Frogger. “My dad had a forklift overturn on him when I was little. It messed his back up and he couldn’t work. When we were going around the class discussing careers, I asked ‘What do you say if your dad is on disability?’ You know what your father said? He said, ‘Then you put bum.’ And from then on, he always called my dad a deadbeat and would make fun of his walk. My dad has his own hot tub now to soak his back. You got one of those Reid?”
Frogger looked over the crowd that had surrounded them.
“Then I started boxing,” continued Frogger. “The closest gym was in Sweetwater, and working out there I made a lot of friends, some of whom were black. Your daddy ever used the word nigger around you?”
Frank shook his head.
“Back then,” said Frogger, “it was neck and neck with the F-word for him. One day when we were seniors, my friends and I were up at Indian Boundary Lake for the day. They happened to be African-American. They didn’t want to go at first, but I assured them that it would be fine. We went swimming, walked around the lake. We got back to my jeep around 6:00 and found that our tires had been slashed. All four of them.”
Reid looked down at the ground.
“No one was around,” said Frogger. “There’s a payphone there, but none of us had any change. So we sat there for three hours hoping someone would happen to come by and give us a ride, or at the very least some change. Didn’t happen. No one showed up. So we began the 15-mile walk back to town. Of course, you know this town. No one would pull over and give three black kids a ride. We made it to the Full Tank around 5:00 in the morning. My friends never had anything to do with me after that night. Said I shouldn’t have kept assuring them that everything would be okay.”
Frogger looked behind him to see that the band was still playing, but the crowd’s focus was on the two them.
“A few months later, somebody told me that you did it,” he said. “I doubt if I asked you now that you would deny it.”
Reid paused, glancing at the crowd before finally staring at his family.
“No,” he said. “It was me.”
Frogger gave himself a congratulatory nod and smile.
“I knew it,” he said. “You know, sometimes when I was in the ring, I would envision that my opponent was you.”
“Well, you should be thankin’ him then,” said Debbie. “You seem like you’ve done pretty well for yourself.”
“Got a beautiful wife. Baby on the way. Last year, I pulled in $750,000. You still hoping to get on first shift at the plant?”
Reid ran his thumbs under the straps of his overalls.
“Actually,” he said, “I’m kind of partial to thirds. Gives me more time with Frank and Amanda.”
Frogger squatted and stared directly at Amanda.
“You kids got your own room, or you still waiting for daddy to finance a bigger trailer.”
The bag of cotton candy hit the ground.
Reid charged forward, but Frogger stood up, stepped back, and raised his fists.
“Come on,” said Frogger.
A crowd rushed over. Debbie grabbed the back of his overall straps.
“Reid,” pleaded Debbie. “The police will put you in jail.”
“Not for him,” said Reid. “Frogger if you want to do this, let’s go over there right where the square dance was. That way we can have a crowd, and you can make it up to all of us who paid $49.95 to watch you last 79 seconds with Machine Gun Viturbo.”
Frogger pushed his tongue against the roof of his front teeth and then motioned Reid towards the town square parking lot. He walked past Frogger and Debbie ran to his side.
“Do you want your kids to see this?” she asked angrily.
He turned 45 degrees in her direction to reveal his wall of stubbornness. Thirteen years of marriage had taught her that it was useless to press the issue.
The band had recessed playing and a crowd had gathered around the two of them as they stood in the center of the lot. Reid recognized all of them except the out-of-towners. Many went to Chadwick Hill Baptist Church with him. He was taking in the frowns on their faces when Deputy David Gibbons entered his line of vision.
“Reid,” he said. “I can’t let y’all do this.”
“Sure you can,” said Frogger. “We’re not hurting anybody.”
“Shut up Frogger,” said Gibbons.
“David,” said Reid. “We’re just gonna wrestle around a bit. Anything gets out of hand, you can make us stop.”
Gibbons gave half a grin and sucked his teeth before walking away. Reid pulled a pack of Red Man chewing tobacco from his front pocket and put a chaw in his right cheek. During his teen years, its juice had been his greatest pugilistic weapon. Even the nastiest of the nasty lost a step when hit with tobacco spit, and if a shot landed in someone’s eyes, they might as well run in the other direction.
The crowd had cleared away, but it did not diminish the heat. Reid could feel the beads of sweat streaming down from his armpit to his waist. Even Frogger’s blown-dry aura was beginning to moisten. A small wet patch had appeared on the chest of his pink polo.
“You sure you don’t want to take that off?” asked Reid.
Frogger shook his head.
“Don’t need to.”
“It must’ve cost you at least fifty dollars at that Men’s Wearhouse,” argued Reid.
Reid held out his hands diplomatically. Frogger condescendingly showed his teeth.
“I don’t shop at the Men’s Wearhouse,” he said. “And I’m guessing you don’t either. This came from Brooks Brothers. And it cost way more than fifty dollars.”
Reid nodded. I’m going to kill this little worm, he thought. Frogger was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds. Reid stood six foot two inches and weighed 215 pounds. There were always stories about little guys dancing around, taking potshots at big men. However, the victims of that were tall, plodding oafs, something Reid was not.
Not taking off that pink polo will be the death of him, thought Reid. Frogger would charge in, ready to fire a few jabs at Reid’s chin, and step back. The minute he did, the tobacco juice would fly, not in Frogger’s face, but all over that expensive shirt. He’s a prizefighter, thought Reid. It won’t faze him for long, but it will slow him long enough for me to box his ears and bring him down to the ground.
Reid extracted every bit of juice possible from the brown mound in his cheek and stared directly at his opponent. Frogger had already raised his fists, which seemed a little premature to Reid. As he stared closer at his opponent, he realized why. The difference in size had finally registered with Frogger and was apparent by the bewildered frown across his face.
This is going to be easy, thought Reid. He took one quick look at the crowd, stopping to study Frogger’s wife briefly. Her face showed many emotions, none of which were worry, concern, compassion, or supportiveness. He turned back to Debbie, Frank, and Amanda. Debbie looked as if she wanted to cry and Amanda had her head buried in her mother’s stomach. Frank looked at his father and punched his fist with his hand.
“You ready?” asked Frogger.
Reid nodded, his mouth too full of spit to talk. He put his fists up and stepped towards Frogger. Much to Reid’s surprise, Frogger did not charge him. Instead he circled with Reid, seemingly studying his opponent. After a few circles, Reid stepped back and hocked all of his tobacco juice onto the ground. His opponent’s refusal to charge told him everything he needed to know. In Frogger’s materialistic world, he could have beaten Reid by simply walking in front of him with his pretty wife in tow. But life imitates sport, and as Philadelphia fighters often did, Frogger let his pride get the best of him. In life, however, Reid decided to go easy on him. After he lowered his arms, Frogger tilted his head.
Don’t come a chargin’,” said Reid.
“What are you doing?”
“Frogger,” said Reid, “you’re right. I did do you wrong, and for that I am truly sorry. I wish I could do or give you something to make up for it, but the Lord has blessed you beyond the point of me being able to provide you with anything of real value. However, if that is not enough, I will give you the opportunity to take one shot at my left cheek.”
Frank’s eyes widened. Debbie lowered her head. Frogger looked relieved and disappointed at the same time as he lowered his hands.
“You do know that my right cross is my best shot, don’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Reid. “And if you need to do this, I want you to hit me as hard as you can. Because one shot is all you get.”
Frogger nodded and lifted his hands. As he set his fighter’s stance, Reid tightly crossed his arms and clenched his fists. He gritted his teeth. The wad of Red Man stayed tightly wedged between his jaw and cheek. Frogger stared at him intently, before lowering his hands. Reid breathed a sigh of relief and unloosened himself.
“So are y’all even?” asked Gibbons.
Reid turned to look at his family. When he did, Frogger launched a vicious right fist into his jaw. Reid could feel tears well up in his eyes as tobacco juice burnt his throat. A sharp pain went through his right shoulder as he hit the asphalt.
“Now we are,” said Frogger.
The bystanders looked at Frogger, mostly with disapproval.
“You definitely forgot where you came from,” said an older lady in the crowd.
“My home’s in Philly,” he said, as he and his wife made their way to their Mercedes.
Reid slowly picked himself up off the ground. When he stood straight up, he wiped the blood away from his lower lip.
“You all right?” asked Debbie.
“He didn’t even make me swaller by ‘baccer,” said Reid.
Debbie rolled her eyes.
“Something every woman hopes to hear,” she said.
“Frank, come here,” said Reid, as he motioned to him.
Frank walked over and Reid put his hand on his shoulder.
“That guy that just punched your daddy; he beat some of the best boxers of his era and makes more in a month than I do in a year. But he doesn’t seem very happy, does he?”
“No,” said Frank.
“Part of that is probably because I was mean to him when he was growing up,” said Reid.
“You just did a few things,” said Frank.
Reid shook his head.
“I did a lot more than that. So when you pick on somebody, you may think it’s funny at the time. But you may be hurtin’ that person for life.”
“You’ve gotta choice,” said Reid. “When we get home, you can go get me a hickory or you can offer your right cheek to Patrick Lane this fall. I’ll let you think about it on the way.”