THE LONELY VOICE #10: Two Boys Fighting, Omaha Nebraska


Two boys are fighting. Neither is especially interested in beating the other up but once these things start, sometimes you’ve got no choice but to go ahead with it. One of the boys is black, the other is white. The fight begins in the schoolyard but eventually edges out into town. The other kids watching, unlike the fighters themselves, want to see blood. Come on! Come on! But by now this fight has become a kind of dance. The red sun sinks further into the flat, and the two fighters become indistinguishable shadows.  We are in Nebraska. It might be the 1920s.

The black boy takes two steps backward and one step forward, swings and intentionally misses. Behind him is home. He’s tired, hungry. He feels vaguely guilty, knowing that he could, if he wanted to, finish this off easy. The white boy is known to be of limited intelligence. Actually, he’s an oaf. He’s repeated the third grade more times then anybody can remember. This year, they had to take the drawer out of his desk so his knees would fit.  In his mind, the black boy refers to the white boy as potato mouthed. He can’t even taunt right. All the more reason not to want to beat him up. What would be the point? But there you are. This is a fight. Fighters must fight.

The white boy isn’t thinking about any of this. He’s only trying to survive and not trip over his untied shoelaces. He checks the clock on the bank. How much longer is this going to go on? It’s no longer a question of who will win.

Nobody is going to win. The dilemma is how nobody is going to lose.

The black boy’s name is, definitely, Eustace Beecher. The white boy’s name is less certain. It might be Emil Hrdilc. Both of them, if they ever existed at all, are long dead. Even the school where all this began—gone. There’s a highway there now.

The fight itself is a half-remembered glimpse rescued from oblivion.

It’s a story by Wright Morris. Morris wrote upwards of 30 books.[1] He was from Nebraska but lived much of his life in California dreaming of Nebraska. Nebraska has a way of being forgotten, just like Wright Morris. He died in California in the late 1990s. I put his best work right up there with Faulkner, Welty, and Bellow.

Morris was also a photographer and among the first, in a novel called The Home Place, to use photos as an integral part of the narrative. The structures of some of his novels are complex, at times beautifully and insanely so (see Field of Vision and Ceremony in Lone Tree), but he never loses touch with the earth, with the dust, with the ways his people talk to each other and, importantly, don’t talk to each other. In a Morris story or a novel, when people talk, they say something. If they’ve got nothing to say, they keep quiet. Sometimes for years.  (See Cora Adkins in Plains Song.)

But this doesn’t mean his people don’t talk to themselves. No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris. It’s only that his characters—like us all—are often so isolated from other people by the cage of their own heads.  Even when, as in the case of this story, “A Fight Between A White Boy and a Black Boy in the Dusk of a Fall Afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska,”[2] two characters are doing something as intimate as fighting, they are still, when all is said and done, having a completely separate experience. It’s as though this fight—this dance—is an attempt to overcome what divides them.

In book after book, Morris tries to solve the problem of our loneliness. The presence of other people, even those we deeply love, never seems to make us less—I wish I had another word here but I don’t—alone. And in Morris’s work this essential truth is both exhilarating (because his people see the world in their own unique and often comic way) and terrible (because they can never quite translate their personal visions well enough to truly share them with other people). Morris’s characters are constantly asking themselves hard and brave questions, the sort of questions people never ask out loud. This is Cora in Plains Song at the end of her life, wondering, silently, how it would have been if she’d done it all differently. What if she’d never come west from Ohio? What if she never married Emerson and stayed put?

Is the past a story we are persuaded to believe in, in the teeth of the life we endure in the present . . .?  Would it have been better if she’d stayed with her father, a gentle man with a cracked, pleading voice?

I find myself returning to Morris a lot lately. I’m not entirely sure why. It might be because I crave more silence in fiction. Is it me? Or is it the noisier the better now—with everything?

Meanwhile, in this tiny four-page story, the fight continues. The black boy keeps edging toward home, the darkened Negro section of town.  There’s only one streetlight gleaming at the far end of the street like a halo. The white boy, the poor potato-headed oaf, follows him. The story obviously means to say something about race relations in the Midwest, in the early years of the last century. But there’s rarely anything especially overt in a Morris story.  These are two individual boys fighting a fight they never even wanted. They don’t represent anybody but themselves, Eustace and Emil. Maybe his name is Emil. It’s the outside world that refers to them as a black boy and a white boy.

The one spectator left to watch this fight stands revealed in the glow of the bakery window. One pocket is weighted with marbles; the buckles of his britches are below his knees. He watches the fighters edge into darkness where the white shirt of the black boy is like an object levitated at a séance. Nothing else can be seen. Black boy and white boy are swallowed up. For a moment one can hear the shuffling feet of the white boy; then that, too, dissolves into darkness.

The narrator announces his presence late in the story.  He’s a man remembering something he once saw at dusk, in Omaha. Maybe memory itself is the wonder (and loneliness) of trying to dredge up what we know we will never see again.

Somewhere, still running, there is a white boy who saw all of this and will swear to it; otherwise, nothing of what he saw remains. The Negro section, the bakery on the corner, the red-brick school with the one second-floor window (the one that opens out on the fire escape) outlined by the chalk dust where they slapped erasers—all that is gone, the earth leveled and displaced to accommodate the ramps of the new freeway. The cloverleaf approaches look great from the air.

And yet: Maybe experiencing something in real time is, ultimately, less powerful, less vivid, than remembering it years, decades, later.  Is this the fleeting solution?  Our visions do sometimes translate, if imperfectly. We remember, we tell, we write, we read. Occasionally, we emerge from our own heads, and, for a while, we meet each other. Stories take the edge off all the time we spend alone, trapped in the fever of our own thoughts. A man remembers, and I, who have only driven through Omaha on my way someplace else, never forget a small thing that once happened there.

Two dead men are boys again. The sun hovers just above the plains, the blood-red light. They’re back in the schoolyard. The other boys are back too, egging them on. Come on! Come on! The fight becomes a dance. The black boy feels his vague sense of guilt. The white boy tries, desperately, to hold his own. His shoelaces, once again, are untied.

[1] Morris wrote, novels, stories, memoir, and criticism. He won the National Book Award twice, for Field of Vision and Plains Song.

[2] Wright Morris, Collected Stories, 1948-1986. Harper and Row (1986). It’s out of print but generally not hard to find. The story also appears in a slim collection of stories published in 1973 by Black Sparrow called Here is Einbaum.  Also out of print but I see it in used bookstores occasionally.


All photos by Wright Morris.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →