Big Alabama and the New Girl
by James Valvis
My sister was a Jersey City hard ass. No kidding. She wore a jacket with Led Zep painted on the back and smoked Kools with her black friends, Marlboros with the white ones. She flipped the bird to her teachers and even the cops left her alone. Here comes Big Alabama, they’d say, and scatter when she passed.
She’d come upon her reputation by kicking the crap out of several grown men, not to mention most of the thugs from Curry Woods Projects to Journal Square.
My sister didn’t fight girls, just men and teenaged boys, usually more than one at a time. Fighting a girl for Big Alabama was like Mohammed Ali fighting a nun from St. Paul’s Church.
And yet it was a girl who took Big Alabama down.
It started the day a new girl challenged my sister.
My sister blew her off. There would always be pretenders to the crown, and you couldn’t fight every nut. But the girl kept insisting, and telling everyone Big Alabama was afraid to fight her, and since reputation is everything when you grow up dirt poor and violent in the city slums, my sister met this girl after school on the field of battle, which turned out to be the corner of Danforth and Princeton.
The girl was overweight like my sister, only a little less fat and not nearly as pretty. Her hair was stringy and greasy. Her teeth looked like a dirty and colorful necklace of M&Ms with some of the brown chocolate inside showing through.
A crowd formed quickly. They’d been waiting for this. Most of them were young men. I was also there, a weak boy of eleven whose survival depended on Big Alabama’s rep.
Oh, the bullies still worked me over, but they would stop before going too far, before they had to deal with my sister.
Anytime my sister fought my life was on the line as well, and this seemed the worst of all possible challenges because losing to a man or three hoodlums was one thing but getting wiped out by another fifteen-year-old girl was a disaster.
For us, the stakes had never been higher.
It was a mismatch from the beginning.
Big Alabama mauled her. She grabbed her by her stringy hair and swung her like a very fat and very long discus, finally letting the new girl somersault into a parked car. Then Big Alabama was on her again. She pinned her shoulder’s down with her knees and my sister slapped at her face like a boxer working on the speed bag.
Blood spurted from the girl‘s nose and lips and even ears. Big Alabama told her to say I give, but the new girl wouldn’t, so my sister hit her some more, though she didn’t want to. Her heart wasn’t in it. This wasn’t a bunch of thugs. This wasn’t some man who’d felt up one of her friends. It was just a scared girl like she had been once upon a time.
There was no glory in it, nothing to burnish her reputation, no honor to be defended. So Big Alabama stood up, turned toward me, and said Let’s go home.
She wasn’t even sweating. I was about to turn and walk off with her, when I sensed something. A hush in the crowd, perhaps, or the disjointed feeling that something was wrong, that people were not moving off like they did after other fights, that they still stood watching. Big Alabama felt it too. She stopped and listened, as if the air itself might clue her in to what was wrong.
Neither of us had seen the girl rise to her feet. And neither of us saw her pull out the brass knuckles. And Big Alabama never saw the punch coming.
But I did. I saw that brass hand come down on my sister’s skull.
And I heard the sound of the dull crack on her head.
After that, things got crazy.
I was pushed to the back of the crowd. I couldn’t see everything. Bodies moved in front of me, blocking my view.
I squirmed closer. Big Alabama was dazed but not yet out. She was fighting but she was woozy and kept losing her balance.
Pushing, wiggling, I struggled to the front in time to see the new girl on top of my sister. Big Alabama lay face-down on the ground, half-unconscious. The new girl had her pinned and was pummeling her head.
I’d never seen my sister on the ground before, helpless and failing, and I thought about all the times she’d come to my rescue, and the next thing I knew I was throwing myself on the new girl, pulling that stringy hair and slapping at her ugly face.
But everyone knows the rules of a fight. And I didn’t last a moment on her back before I was pulled off by the thugs and told if I interfered again I’d be in worse shape than Big Alabama. They meant it too. They always did. If they hadn’t been interested in the fight already going on, I would have never even gotten that one warning.
This time I wasn’t pushed into the back.
My sister wasn’t fighting anymore but she wouldn’t say give either.
No matter how much the new girl hit her, my sister wouldn’t quit. Beaten, bloody, nearly unconscious, my sister knew what this meant, not just for her, but for me, and for all the people she protected.
At last the new girl gave up hitting her and reached down and lifted up her shirt and started working at her bra straps.
This was a new kind of fighting, one we hadn’t encountered before. It was the kind of fighting that said winning was everything, and everything was permissible, just so long as you win.
The men and thugs Big Alabama had fought, believe it or not, had inherited some degree of chivalry that was absent in this girl. The civilization was in decay, but something of the old had seeped into these men.
The new girl was different.
She was descended of those who lined up people and shot them.
She was a daughter of the killing fields and the concentration camps.
The thugs cheered and hooted and demanded their new champion rip away the bra to complete the humiliation.
My sister tried to hold her bra to her body, like a falling person might reach out for something to grab, knowing there wasn’t anything but air.
She would have to say I give or those men would see her breasts.
After that, the pants would go. And after that, who knows?
And so my sister capitulated. Groggy with pain and shame, she put her face on the ground and told the new girl, I give.
I expected the worst, but the worst seldom arrives.
Word got around about Big Alabama losing, but word also got around about the brass knuckles, and the consensus was if you wanted to fight my sister you had better sucker punch her with a set of brass knuckles, and even that won’t be enough to take out the girl completely.
So things didn’t turn out as badly as I feared they would.
The bullies still pulled their punches with Big Alabama’s brother and my sister still smoked Kools and Marlboros, a pack of each inside her Led Zep jacket, while talking to all her friends.
As for the new girl, nobody knew what happened to her. After the fight and the bragging about it, she disappeared.
Then one day walking home we saw her sitting on her porch,
She was eight months pregnant without a wedding band. She called out to us and my sister and I walked over. They did all the talking. The girl and my sister laughed about the fight, but the girl was sure to keep the fence between them. She didn’t have to do that. Big Alabama would never hit a pregnant girl. That wasn’t the way she did her fighting, or her winning.
Standing there, watching them talk, my sister smoking and the other girl resting her hands on her enormous belly, I wondered if my sister had lost that fight after all. Who’s to say every fight is decided the day it happens, and not maybe days or weeks or even years later.
And walking home, my sister strutting down the street in her Led Zep jacket, shaking hands with everyone, I thought about Big Alabama. I thought about how my sister had battled to keep her bra, how she had always fought the good fight, how she had weighed one kind of shame for another and decided to keep her dignity over her reputation, her honor over some needless pride, while the new girl had made a different choice, and let some loser slip off her bra, without a promise, without a struggle, without him even making her say: I give.