Sticking Around the Karate Tournament to Watch the Teenage Black Belt Boys Fight

By MARLIN M. JENKINS 

There’s so many of us here: hood boys taught
discipline through bowing and bare feet, through
knowing the leg is just as much of the punch as
the knuckle. We learned how to smooth our
anger through repetition, to count in languages
we mispronounce, to follow commands and try
not to feel like there’s something wrong with
calling someone else master, even if it’s merely
a synonym for sensei. It’s getting late into the
afternoon, another tournament with too few
volunteers to get all us out of here with any sense
of time, and these things start to feel like church,
like the people shouting and reaching with their
hands is an all-day affair we use to forget
the lives we’ll return to tomorrow, where
we supposed to apply what we learned here
but usually don’t.
The first kick below the belt
is a warning, a forgivable mistake. But we
know too that however many belts we’ve earned
and no matter how hard the plastic of cup
nestled in a jock strap that shit still hurt. The
second time is a penalty point, but also the anger
in the boy’s face like the hood in him so thick
and so deep it remind us, even with so many years
of training how to stand still for way too long
with bent knees, how to make our hand a tool
to strike through slabs of cement, learning to
jump like gravity is a god whose face we spit
in—all that and we reminded how all of it
can so easily disappear in the pressing down of
brow and a scowl more advanced than any type
of punch, more pronounced than any cry
of the other hood boys when they hear we black
belts and try out their best Bruce Lee impression
on us.
But even two cheap shots in—intentional
or not—the boy keeps fighting. I’m sure
he tries to remember this isn’t full contact:
just for points, our padded surfaces to cushion
what we know we are capable of—training or
not. Maybe the boy tries to give the kid the
benefit of the doubt, but knows the other kid a
black belt too and should know how to kick right.

It happens a third time, a foot gets caught under
this black belt this kid has earned in Detroit
where we glad to be fighting with pads and refs
and teachers and control and not out on the
street where we hope we never have to show
someone what we know—and our boy’s hands
drop, chest and head up, and he starts to rush the
other kid, and the judges rush in to pull him
back, to keep him calm, cause we all know
what the kid is capable of, how so many years
of being struck below the belt compiles into
this moment where we forget everything but this:
we know 100 ways to crush a man’s skull
and we want to find out which one works best.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry in the University of Michigan’s MFA program. His writings have been given homes by Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and The Journal, among others. He is an editor for HEArt Online, and you can find him on Twitter @Marlin_Poet.

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