photo-chrisChris Honore’ was born in occupied Denmark, during WWII. After the war, he immigrated to America. He went to public schools and then attended San Jose State University and the University of California, at Berkeley, where he earned a teaching credential, an M.A. and a Ph.D. After teaching high school English for two years, he joined the Peace Corps. He’s a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon. His wife owns a bookstore on Main Street. His son is a cinematographer, living in Southern California.

PUNCH

by Chris Honore’

For a time, my family and I lived in Watson, a small farming town in California’s Central Valley — flat, nondescript, a sepia photograph slightly out of focus.

Everyday I walked to school and back along dusty, rutted roads bordered by wide irrigation ditches usually filled with green-brown water. The water was controlled by a series of concrete locks that could be opened by turning upright, spoked wheels allowing the water to flood out into the fields, sluicing along parched rows of cotton.

In late spring and all through the relentless summer, we swam in the water nearest the locks where it was deepest, diving off the concrete abutments, splashing one another, whooping and hollering, playing like young seals.

One hot day in late May, I was walking home with Ben and his younger brother, Marshall, who everyone called Punch. Except his mother, of course. Marshall was called Punch because some years back every time Ben saw his brother he would insist that he had to give him a shoulder punch, just one. Marshall, naturally, was not too keen on the idea and would take off, dodging back and forth, zigzagging around shrubs and parked cars, sometimes close to tears, yelling back at Ben, No, no way, come on, cut it out, Ben.

One punch, Marshall, one little shoulder punch. Won’t even hurt. You’re such a wimp. I’m tellin’ you, just stand still and take your medicine ’cause it’s gonna be worse if I have to run all over to catch you. Might as well stop and get it over with. And if you tell mom, you get double next time.

So, without anyone really saying anything, we started calling Marshall, Punch, and as far as we could tell he didn’t seem to mind.

Nearing a particularly wide lock, one of our favorites because of its size and depth, Ben stopped and looked down at the water, its surface a mirror, the rough cement at the waterline a mossy green. Tufts of silky grass grew along the damp edges of the banks, and if the water stood for weeks, never released, we found pollywogs darting back and forth in the shallows. Catching them in clear canning jars, holding them up to the sunlight, we peered closely at their delicate, translucent bodies, searching for signs of nascent legs.

Punch and I stopped near Ben, who seemed lost in thought. The three of us stood there for a moment, the heat rising in shimmering waves around us, the air pungent with the smell of alfalfa and freshly turned earth. Abruptly, Ben turned to Punch, saying, “Dare ya to jump in.”

Punch gave Ben a sideways look and took a step back. I waited for a sign that Ben was just kidding around. This wasn’t a real dare. How could it be? And I started to say as much: Fine. Let’s all jump in, it’s so damned hot. But Ben’s face was masked in a tight grin, his eyes serious and hard on Punch.

Dare ya. Those words carried an enormous weight and could defeat, without much discussion, common sense and caution. If the kid who was dared hesitated, even briefly, or started to point out that the dare was dumb, even dangerous, the next word that followed was, chicken.

And that’s what Ben said to Punch when Punch just stood there, staring down at the water, shaking his head, meaning, No way. For all kinds of reasons he wasn’t about to do it.

“Come on, Punch. A dare’s a dare. Or you chicken? That it? You chicken?” Ben looked at Punch, nodding his head, as if suddenly privy to a great and new revelation. “You are. You’re some kinda little chicken. I knew it. You’re just a little itty-bitty chicken.” Ben said this in a talking-to-baby voice, the way a parent might talk to a small child who refused to eat his strained peas. Then he began flapping his elbows up and down, clucking and squawking, watching Punch closely, a mean, lop-sided grin playing on his lips.

Punch stood stone still looking at the water, the wind dancing across its surface causing only the slightest of ripples, the wispy grass stirring at its edge.

I judged the water to be about six feet deep. Maybe more. Punch stood four feet in his sneakers and the three of us could do the math. So, just when I was about to tell Ben to knock it off, that it was a dumb dare and he should take it back, Punch dropped his books and binder at his feet and jumped in. Just like that. One minute he was standing at the edge of the lock, and the next minute all I saw was his head disappearing beneath the surface of the water.

I was stunned. And so was Ben, who stopped in mid-squawk, staring at the water in disbelief.

“Damn,” I heard myself say, looking intently at the spot where Punch went in, waiting for him to reappear.

It was in that moment that the fact that Punch couldn’t swim a stroke hit me. Punch was a brick. There wasn’t one of us who hadn’t spent time trying to teach him to at least float, telling Punch to stretch out in the water, saying, Punch, come on, just relax, willya? Just spread your arms out, put your head back, sweartagod, you won’t sink, you won’t. All the while keeping one hand under the flat of his back, explaining how his lungs were like small balloons, and if he filled them with air — Suck it in, Punch, come on, let me see some air in those lungs, deep breath, jeez, your lungs, Punch, not your cheeks — he’d float like an inner tube. None of us had a prayer. We all agreed it would have been easier to teach Punch to fly.

But we also had to agree that Punch was willing. How many times had we watched him standing near the lock’s edge, trembling, his thin arms pulled in tight at his side, his lips a mottled blue, taking deep breaths, then launching forward, arms wind milling, only to thrash the water and gasp for breath until one us pulled him to the bank. An inner tube he was not.

Ben hadn’t moved, his eyes wide and unblinking. “Punch can’t swim,” he whispered.

There were a lot of things I could have said to Ben right then, the two of us standing there, trying to fully grasp what Punch had done. Like, Really nice, Ben. You idjet. Way to go. And so on. But all I remember is dropping my books and jumping into the water, aiming for the exact spot where I judged Punch had gone in.

The cold water engulfed me, the shock of it causing me to open my eyes, the weight of my clothes pulling me down and taking me instantly to the edge of panic.

I saw Punch just an arm’s length away, looking at me, bubbles coming from his mouth. I reached over and grabbed his T-shirt and pulled him toward me, giving a hard push off the muddy bottom, clouds of silt swirling around us, working my right arm hard until we broke the surface.

Ben was there, at the water’s edge, waiting, and pulled first Punch and then me onto the steep, muddy bank. Punch lay on his back, coughing, taking huge gulps of air, his dark hair matted on his forehead, water streaming from his nose.

Ben kept saying, “Man oh man, Punch. What’d you go and do that for? I swear ta God, I swear, Punch. Why’d you do that?”

Punch turned on the bank, rubbing his nose, sniffing, his face glistening in the sunlight, saying, “Because you dared me.”

Ben looked at Punch hard, shaking his head, and for a moment I thought he was going to cry. We stayed there on the bank for a long time, Punch and I drying in the hot sun, shivering from the wet and our effort, a strange silence surrounding us. And Ben, his arms resting on his pulled up knees, sat looking at the water and the fields beyond.

After that, Ben started calling Punch, Marshall and told other kids to do the same. Punch never said a word about the lock or about being called Marshall, but he seemed different, taller in some indefinable way, and I think I understood why.