- Fred Smith
Pencil Fight Club (a short story)
Pencil fighting was officially banned at Hamilton Elementary in the Fall of 1987. The law was passed during my fourth grade year when Headmistress Gavel halted a fight between yours truly and fifth grader Nicholas Pfizer in the cafeteria. The cease and desist command came mid-lick in front of an audience of no fewer than fourteen pre-pubescent boys and Sarah Casey, a fellow fourth grader and tomboy who preferred the action of a good pencil fight to the girly gossip of her fellow coeds. On that fateful day, the Headmistress of our school and most feared educator in the district gathered every boy in the cafeteria along with Sarah and explained the dangerous nature of our favorite past time. Doctor Gavel, as our school’s Headmistress commanded students call her, presented a compelling case for the needless risks pencil fighting presented. While the odds of a severed shard of wood finding our exposed pupils seemed long and far-fetched, Dr. Gavel made it painstakingly clear that such a precarious activity would not take place on her watch. Especially one that involved the pointless destruction of pencils; tools, she asserted, which existed for creation not destruction. And so it came to be during the first week of my fourth grade year that pencil fighting at Hamilton Elementary went the route of gum chewing and card playing; a gleeful act that would forever be frowned upon and punishable with a trip to the Head Mistresses’ office and a phone call home. Pencil fighting, our most beloved of all indoor sports, the thing that set the social pecking order of boys at Hamilton Elementary, was made to be a crime whose deviants were considered public enemies. That was until a new kid named Eddie Castillo transferred in. No one knew for sure where Eddie was from or how he ended up at Hamilton. Some said he’d been arrested for reasons that were best described as gang-related. There were others who claimed he’d been held back a year and was a part of the FBI’s witness protection program. Regardless of his mysterious back story, it took Eddie less than a week to take pencil fighting at our school underground, where it could thrive as the brutal death sport it would soon become. The bathroom near the janitor’s closet was the perfect lair for our illicit pencil fighting ring. It was far enough away from Dr. Gavel’s office, and offered a clear view of the only way in, should she or any other teachers try to catch us in the act. The place was like a speakeasy during prohibition. There were lookouts who signaled the coming of the law with enough warning for us to transform the bathroom from a den of illegal activity to its innocuous and normal self. Teachers were always suspicious and occasionally tried to strong arm weaker willed kids (like me) into spilling the beans about our pencil fight club. But no one ever talked. The fear of Eddie kept us in line. Pencil fighting is an art whose beauty lies in its simplicity. Two fighters square off like dueling swordsmen, but instead of glistening sabers the combatants wield #2 pencils. The rules are simple. A coin toss typically determines which of the two fighters gets first lick (if no coin is available, a winner-take-all game of rock, paper, scissors will do). The loser of the toss holds his pencil horizontally with a firm grip at either end. The winner then takes the first lick at his opponent’s pencil by snapping the metal piece (that holds the eraser) of his own pencil against his foe’s in attempt to slice his counterpart’s shaft in half. After the initial lick, the roles reverse and the holder gets his chance to break the other’s pencil. The fight continues with each fighter trading licks until someone’s pencil severs in two. I had witnessed fights last more than ten savage rounds. Who could forget the time Steven Reynolds outlasted Chris Feldman in a slug fest that went twenty-three licks a piece. By the end of the fight, which resulted in a draw, both fighters looked like their pencils had gone the distance with Rocky Balboa. It was the kind of storied battle that fueled our lunchtime and recess talks for the balance of a year. That was before Eddie Castillo came onto the scene and forever changed the landscape of pencil fighting at Hamilton Elementary. He earned the nickname “One Lick Eddie” when he disposed of his first eleven opponents at Hamilton with one swipe a piece. His early contests showed a determined prize fighter tenaciously rising through the ranks on a collision course with the championship belt. Along the way, he had amassed a highlight reel of knock out blows. Graphite trembled in his opponent’s hands while they waited for Eddie’s mighty lick that needed but one chance to cut his challenger’s pencil in half like a battle ax slicing through cream cheese. He was the greatest any of us had ever seen. A man among boys. An artist among hacks. A god among mortals. He was the best, and he knew it. The only thing at Hamilton that could rival “One lick Eddie’s” skills was his mouth. When it came to verbal taunting, Eddie was the undisputed king; a purveyor of elite trash talk who could hold his own on a prison basketball court. Most fights with Eddie were over even before the first lick. “One Lick Eddie” was a master of the head game, who took sadistic pleasure in toying with the minds of his challengers. His devastating brand of psychological warfare could crush the will of any adversary lacking profound mental fortitude. I was crazy to challenge him. It was Sarah Casey’s idea. When our fighting ring sought refuge in the boys’ bathroom, Sarah became a reluctant outsider; forced to play the role of lookout instead of spectator. She would find me the moment a fight ended and unleash a barrage of enthusiastic questions. Who won? How many licks? What kind of techniques were used? It was as though Sarah was filing away an endless spreadsheet of stats and metrics in her head; a freaky skill that proved a useful resource when the particulars of a past fight were in dispute. Sarah and I had been friends since Kindergarten. We grew up chasing each other on Big Wheels, then graduated to bikes, and then skateboards. Fourth grade was shaping up to be a tough social year for Sarah. The girls didn’t seem to accept her and none of the boys would dare pencil fight her. There’s nothing to be gained by fighting a girl. If you win, you’ve simply beaten a girl. And if you lose… Despite her inability to procure a match, Sarah loved pencil fighting. Whenever she and I were alone, she would overload me with talk of technique for both offense and defense. Her scientific approach to the sport fueled her spouting of theoretical terms like strike angle, torque output, thumb pressure, and pounds per square pencil inch. Though I didn’t understand a word of it, I listened to Sarah and indulged her endless breakdowns of technical prowess, realizing that it was her way of coping with being a pariah in a segregated sport. You can take him. I knew what the cryptic note meant as soon as Sarah slid it to me during Mrs. Sternbaum’s lesson on prepositions. I just didn’t believe it myself. Sarah persisted for the balance of the day, trying to persuade me to challenge Eddie to a fight. Years later I would come to admire her pleading, but in my fourth grade mind, I could think only of the shame I’d feel when my pencil sliced in two upon bearing the brunt of Eddie’s wicked lick. Realizing her pitch was falling on deaf ears, Sarah intensified her hard-sell tactics during lunch. She fed me my stats for the year. My record was respectable. Seventeen wins agains only six defeats. Sarah pointed out that two of my losses were by way of self-inflicted knockout, which meant that I’d broken my own pencil while taking a lick. She also harped on the truth that eight of my seventeen wins had come by way of a first lick knockout. Eight, according to Sarah’s stat keeping, was good to rank me second in the class for the category. Atop the list was of course Eddie, whose intimidating record was an unblemished 33-0, with 29 of his wins by way of first lick knockout. I glanced across the cafeteria and saw Eddie holding court with a quartet of sixth grade girls, including Hanna Vanderspool, whom I’d secretly had a crush on since the second grade. Sarah knew about my fawning over Hanna. When we weren’t talking about pencil fighting, she indulged my gabbing about the girl who had been the star of her father’s perpetually running TV commercials for his jewelry store since she was in the first grade. Rumors on the playground during recess hinted at her being cast in an upcoming Disney movie. What was no rumor was Hanna hanging on “One Lick Eddie’s” every move. Of course she liked him, Sarah pointed out. Eddie was the bad boy who rode a Mongoose Californian with Pro Class bars and rims. He knew every Beastie Boy lyric, and was rarely knocked out in dodgeball. But most importantly, he was the undisputed champion of pencil fighting. Girls like Hanna liked winners. By the end of lunch, Sarah had connected the dots. If I beat Eddie, Hanna would take notice. The actual moment I challenged the champion of Hamilton Elementary to a pencil fight can best be described as an out-of-body experience. I don’t remember doing it, but Sarah confirmed that I crossed the cafeteria, went up to Eddie and threw down the gauntlet. She informed me that my voice cracked when I did, but suggested that was more of a reaction to Hanna being present for the exchange. What mattered was that I had a shot at the title. Three o’clock high in the boys bathroom near the janitor’s closet. A date with destiny. An appointment with the undertaker. A sentence by the executioner. I was going to be sick. I spent most of the hours between lunch and the three o’clock bell conjuring ways I could honorably postpone the fight. Catching my thumb in a door seemed a practical way to sustain an injury that would excuse me from fighting. Then again, a strategically placed paper cut would accomplish the same debilitating affliction while providing physical proof to keep me from being called a faker. Sarah would’t hear it. She said I was crazy to even think about backing down from what was clearly the defining moment of my young scholastic career. She knew I could beat Eddie and would stop at nothing until I believed it myself. You can take him. The words became a mantra Sarah repeated to me right up until the three o’clock bell rang like an alarm from the emergency broadcast system. Our class dispersed, with most of the boys making their way to bathroom where the main event would take place. I caught a glance of Hanna Vanderspool in time to catch her laughing at another of Eddie’s jokes. That’s when the champion’s eyes locked on to mine and he mouthed the words that made me wish I was home with the flu. You’re dead. I made the slow walk to the boys bathroom by the janitor’s closet with Sarah offering words of encouragement like machine gun fire. Block out his trash talking. See his pencil breaking into pieces. Follow through on every stroke. Focus. We stopped just before the door to the boys bathroom. This was the end of the line for Sarah, and as I took a deep breath before entering, my lone supporter offered one final encouragement: You can take him. She believed it. I’m not sure I did, but I went in anyway. The bathroom was eerily quiet when I entered. The usual pimple-faced crowd stared at me with an equal mix of awe and pity. Then the door opened and “One Lick Eddie” entered the ring like Mike Tyson. He was all business, and wore the game face of fighter who was poised to finish me off quickly. When it was determined that there was no coin to be had, the privilege of first lick came down to a game of rock-paper-scissors. I had sized up Eddie to be a rock guy. Anyone with such devastating pencil fighter skills had to be a rock guy, but Sarah had metrics that proved otherwise. In fourteen rock-paper-scissors contests this year, Eddie had gone with scissors a surprising eleven times. She had urged me to play the percentages if it came down to it. Now here we were. One. He’s got to be a rock. Two. Paper. I’m ready with paper. Three… But what if Sarah’s right? Shoot! The crowd looked in for several tense beats of silence as everyone assessed the results. Eddie held his palm face down. Paper. I held out two fingers. Scissors. First lick was mine. Eddie held out his pencil and spewed his trash talk bile. I did my best to tune it out and focus only on following through and seeing his pencil shatter in two. But I couldn’t stop his words from getting in my head. As I took my warm up licks, Eddie confessed the real reason he was at Hamilton. He’d been expelled from his last school for pencil fighting after slicing a pencil with such devastation that a piece of mangled wood jettisoned from the wreckage and found the loser’s eye. The kid Eddie had beaten wore an eye patch for the rest of the year. Now Eddie was going to do the same to me. Block out his trash talking. See his pencil breaking into pieces. Follow through on every stroke. Focus. I cocked my #2 American Faber Castell and unleashed it on Eddie with every ounce of ferocity I could muster. It felt powerful. It felt pure. It bounced off of Eddie’s pencil without inflicting so much as a dent. Eddie cracked a wicked grin. I knew there was no sense in delaying the inevitable. I held my pencil for him to take his lick, wondering if I should close my eyes for safety or keep them open so I could watch the master at work. I just hoped it would be over quickly. And it was. True to his nickname, Eddie disposed of me in a single lick, upping his record to 34-0. The winner by knockout and still undefeated champion of Hamilton Elementary gloated his win and taunted the onlooking crowd to see if there was anyone else who wanted to test him. There was. A lone challenger emerged, not from the crowd who had just witnessed my humiliating defeat, but from the door. We looked in utter shock as the contender entered the boys bathroom, crossed the linoleum floor and stood to-to-toe with the champion. Sarah. It was likely the first time in the history of Hamilton Elementary that a girl had set foot in the boys bathroom, and definitely the first time a girl had stepped into a pencil fight since our ring was forced underground. Yet Sarah was undaunted. She eyed the reigning champion like a hungry contender with her sights on the title. Eddie laughed off her challenge. A girl wasn’t worthy of fighting him, even if this one had risked an in-school suspension and endured smells no coed should ever experience. He was three steps toward the door when Sarah called him back to the ring with the mocking sound effect of a cackling chicken. That’s when the champion did an about face and returned with a look of hatred in his eyes. He readied himself for rock-paper-scissors. This time, Eddie would vary his predictable pattern. Or would he? The psychological game within a game was on. Sarah held up her hand before the contest began. The gallery let out a noticeable gasp. She was giving him first lick! No one had conceded first lick in the recorded history of pencil fighting at Hamilton. Yet here Sarah was, deferring the opening blow to “One Lick Eddie,” who was a shocked as the rest of us at the tactic. Sara held her pencil for Eddie to size up. He cocked his instrument of death and let it fly with a vengeance. His metal sweet spot landed with a mighty clack that reverberated throughout the bathroom, but it didn’t break Sarah’s pencil. Sarah smiled as she motioned for Eddie to ready himself for her return fire. The champion was as surprised as us that Sarah was still alive. Her pencil must have suffered internally and would surely break in her hands as she attempted her lick. It would be a self-inflicted knockout, but could be considered a moral victory, especially for a girl. I could see in Sarah’s eyes that she didn’t cross the line of indecency and come to the boys bathroom for a moral victory. She was out for blood. Her practice licks showed the will of a long shot who believed the championship belt was within reach. One good lick. That’s all she needed. That’s when I vocalized my belief and openly endorsed Sarah. You can take him. Sarah’s eyes found mine and, in a moment I’ve never forgotten, she winked at me. Then she let loose the first lick a girl had ever taken in the history of pencil fighting at Hamilton Elementary. And what a lick it was. Eddie’s pencil sliced in two. But that wasn’t the reason that decades later this story remains so vivid in my mind. A shard of wood no bigger than a micro-spec launched from Eddie’s shattered pencil and landed in his eye. “One Lick Eddie” doubled over. The champion who’d terrorized our school with a reign of trash talking and ruthless licks began whimpering like a baby. He stumbled out of the bathroom in tears, leaving us to mob our new champion with a cheers that could surely be heard in Dr. Gavel’s office. We didn’t care. There was a new pencil fighting champion at Hamilton Elementary. A legend had been born. EPILOGUE: Eddie Castillo transferred from Hamilton Elementary the very next week. There was much speculation as to where the former champ went or what stories he would tell his new classmates when he got there. Most of us, however, wondered how long he would have to wear an eye patch at his new school. In the wake of Eddie’s departure, pencil fighting at Hamilton was not only permanently banned, but upgraded in punishment with perpetrators serving a weeklong in-school suspension in Dr. Gavel’s office. Sarah Casey never fought another pencil fight again. Her official record would remain 1-0 with her lone win by way of the most memorable knockout the sport has ever seen. It was just was well. None of us would have ever beaten her.