Columns > Published on September 14th, 2018

That Time I Spoiled 'Fight Club' for a Stranger (a.k.a. 'Roughhouse Club')

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So here’s me ruining a movie for everybody:

It's 1999, and I want to show my dad, my brother, and my sister this hot new movie Fight Club. Real quick, I’m pretty much a lightweight when it comes to drinking, but one time I did win a cricket-eating contest (meaning I ate a single cricket while people screamed). In fact, I'm so bad at drinking that when I’m not around, my friends toast me by pouring their beers onto the ground in the tiniest splash that probably wouldn’t make a (non-eaten) cricket alter its course. So when I have three blood-warm Coronas before this movie, I’m probably already in trouble, or at least halfway to having someone in a good-natured headlock. I love Corona though, I really do. Because it’s one of those watery, weakling beers, yes, but mostly because I can jam pieces of fruit in the spout and tickle that shit with my tongue all night long instead of power drinking, and nobody accuses me of nursing it. Not that there’s anything wrong with nursing in public! Our bodies are beautiful miracles, guys. I mean gals. I mean y’all! Whew. Close one.

I've already seen Fight Club, but I really want my brother to see it, and I really want to see it again, so two bones with one bird and all that. Not that we ever had a fight club growing up, something that everyone bullshits about these days. But who are they kidding? A real fight club would never flourish today, simply because of the first rule. Even before the first fight, a dozen dudes would be carefully lining up their shoes to get that perfect Instagram pic and six thousand delicious likes. The second rule of Fight Club is “bloody noses look best with the Valencia filter…”

And I’m really thinking about Ben now, missing all the lessons in the movie about toxic masculinity and airplane etiquette.

But we did do our fair share of rough-housing, resulting in dozens of jammed fingers, even one chipped tooth after I tricked my brother into peering too closely into an Etch-A-Sketch, looking for a message. Turns out there’s nothing in them but aluminum dust, and that stuff sticks to everything. But showing up to work beat up isn’t as romantic as the movie makes it sound (even years later, when I got a gash on my head from a cupboard door and was hoping my students would look at me like I was in a real live fight club, they were instead averting their eyes like I was Luka).

But that night, seeing this movie twice is a good excuse to get my dad out of the house for once. And Halloween of ‘99, I’m like everybody else, all, “Holy balls, that movie sure is a lotta movie! It speaks directly to me, dude. And I’ve always loved that Pixies’ song I never heard before. You, too?”

So my brother Floyd and I get to the theater early, telling my sister and my dad to meet us there because she’s slow as hell, and also because I’ve nursed a beer in public that day already, but mostly because I figure with a hot new movie like this, there’s gonna be ninety people fighting for elbow room. I mean, it’s got “fight” right in the title!

Turns out to be about nine people in the theater total. But we never should have put my sister on Dad Patrol, because they’re running late as usual, and we find a row with three empty seats, one lone popcorn eater, and then three more empty seats beyond him. I figure that’ll do. And when my sister and my dad get there (and she’s all exasperated, of course, and him looking like it’s his first movie ever), I lean over and ask this guy eating popcorn if he could maybe please move down one seat so my sister and my dad can sit with us? Please? Maybe? What do you say, buddy?

He says no.

Confused, I ask my brother what this guy just said because he's a little bit closer to him than I am. I’m honestly searching my memory for another word that makes sense in this situation because who would ever say “No” to this?


“He said ‘No.’” My brother shrugs.

My sister is still standing in the aisle waiting for someone to move down and get this show on the road, and I try to explain things to her.

“I don’t know. That guy won’t move. Seriously. He really just said ‘No.’"

My sister gets the vein on her head that our whole family gets and mutters something like, "Maybe he’d move if you smacked him in the face with my drink." And she always gets the big drink, too, so that’s no joke. But then she leads my dad to some seats a couple rows back and sits down in a huff.

A few minutes of the movie go by, including the flashy title sequence that really I wanted my brother to enjoy where we’re watching flashy chemical reactions and little lightning bolts inside the body or something awesome, an opening sequence that’s not entirely unlike the stars you see when your face is buried in a broken Etch-A-Sketch when someone punches it. But I’m not able to concentrate on watching him watch the credits because I keep leaning over my brother’s legs to get a look at this immovable popcorn-munching object; Young guy, flannel shirt. Reddish-brown hair. Looks like anyone, really. Kinda familiar, any label could apply. So I stretch over my brother again to ask the immovable object’s name. Why not, right? We’re in this together. He ignores me at first, so I ask again. And again. And again. And again. Obnoxious, I know, but keep in mind this is 1999 and Limp Bizkit is at their peak! But so is Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” so I have no excuse really. But I keep on him until he finally sighs and hisses, "Ben!"

I sit back to think about this for another couple of scenes, all the way through the irresponsible gun-in-the-mouth stuff that everyone worried would inspire impressionable youths (but they shouldn’t have worried, it’s not like the movie had a football team laying in traffic or anything). So, his name is “Ben,” but in my mind, it’s spelled “Been,” as in “What has been and what will always be,” or “Has Been” for short. And I’m really thinking about Ben now, missing all the lessons in the movie about toxic masculinity and airplane etiquette. I lean over my brother again.

“Ben, I just can’t believe you wouldn’t move down one seat. It really wouldn’t have affected you at all, and our family could have been together. Why would you do this? Why would anyone do this?”

His eyes remain straight ahead. Eyes always straight ahead. Ben, the true villain here, ice water in his veins, says casually:

“That is why I get to movies on time.”

Me and my brother share a "The balls on this guy!" look, then I sit back amazed and try real hard to watch the guy on the screen disassemble his life for awhile, unable to not dwell on his zinger. I lean over again, kind of enjoying the audience around us getting as annoyed as my brother now.

“Ben, I can’t wait to kill you, dude!”

I don’t know why I say this, but remember this is before all the theater shootings and “Nookie” is on the radio every day and nobody is turning it off. It’s a dumb time. But he just stares straight ahead, and now my brother starts snickering. He knows I’m full of shit. He knows I’m not much of a fighter unless I suckerpunch somebody (which used to be every time because cowards don’t get hurt!), and he knows that the only thing in this world that should really fear me are rearview mirrors because I must have smacked down at least half a dozen rearview mirrors while growing up. The last time was while my brother was driving actually, and I got us lost when it counted the most (long story), and I felt so stupid I punched the mirror because it really was the closest thing to kicking my own ass, which is what the main character is doing right now, of course.

So I try to watch the movie, but suddenly realize that when some asshole says something cocky to you out in the world, like when you're separated by a couple of cars, you usually don’t have time to say what you would have said, or do what you would have done, because, before you know it, the situation is over and the stranger is gone, and you kick yourself for all the things that you coulda woulda shoulda and sometimes you punch down a mirror. But movie theaters are unique because you typically get to sit for almost two hours with this stranger and think up all sorts of interesting ways to respond.

So I start down the low road, misusing "irony" right out of the gate by asking him, "So how ironic is this, Ben, that you’re gonna get your ass beat after a movie called Roughhouse Club? Who’d believe it?"

“This movie is not called Roughhouse Club.”

But it should be!

“You know what I mean.”

We watch the movie awhile, and at one point, there’s a particularly brutal beating on the screen, involving a dreamy albino version of the kid from My So Called Life, and I say, real stupid-like, "See that up there? That’s gonna be you as soon as the credits roll. Better run for your car, sucker!” 

Obviously there’s a lot more subtext to Jordan “Snow Miser” Catalano’s beating than I understood at the time, and for Ben to “be him” it would take a very unique experience, but I hadn’t read any Chuck Palahniuk interviews yet (the internet wasn’t as much of a thing, and I was still working through a stack of free NetZero discs), but more importantly, I would have done none of this. But because he's sitting in silence and not reacting to me at all, I smell blood in the water. I realize I can lean across my brother all night and say whatever I want and he won’t do a thing.

So I ask him what kind of music he listens to. I ask him what his hobbies are, his hopes, his dreams. At one point, I hear people three rows up whisper, "Did he just ask him how to make the perfect omelet?” I try a couple “Mom” jokes, but I’ve always been terrible at them. Luckily, my brother gets off a good one, looking down at all the empty seats to Ben’s left and whispering, “I see you brought your friends with you.” Oh, snap! Ben’s alone at a movie on a weekend? No shame, buddy. I’d never do it though.

About nine rows up and to the right, a little kid squeals when my bottle rolls through her feet, thinking it’s a cat, and the people to her left and right “Tsk!” in frustration. All hell is breaking loose – well, that’s a little dramatic. Maybe all heck is breaking loose, but behind us my sister is laughing real loud at all this, momentarily forgetting her banishment to those back rows, and my dad just rubs his face with both hands. He’s seen this kind of thing before, which is why it’s so tough to get him out of the house.

But I can tell the crowd’s about three snickers from going for security, and Ben the immovable object starts sinking down into his seat real low, but still giving me a thumbs-up whenever I whisper stuff. Eyes unfazed, always straight ahead at the screen. Eventually, he does mumble, "I could care less," and someone two rows up turns around to hush us, but it almost feels like the hero’s imaginary friend on-screen is doing this because he corrects him with, "’I couldn’t care less.’"

So I’m feeling good, like the crowd is on my side, but since I’ve started leaning way across my brother in the third act, it’s about then that I start to smell the Corona and lime on this other guy’s breath. But I still haven’t put two and two together and realized that no one can see this other guy but me, and…

Just kidding!  I would never do that to you.

But we’re all distracted for a second when a cat or another bottle causes this fire-haired bastard in the first row to yell “Hey!” then belch and upend his drink, so I lean over my brother and keep the pressure on. I ask Ben how it feels to take a stand tonight, not even trying to whisper any more.

“It's impressive really. This is the day you decided you will not move down. For anyone. Ever. Again. You must have had to move a lot of seats at a lot of movies to snap like this. I mean, like you told us already — you got here early. You deserve that seat. And even if this screws up your big moment a little, I totally understand though and respect your protest.”

Another thumbs-up from Has Been, a.k.a. the Immovable Object, and for a big chunk of the movie, I'm kind of satisfied. Gave a big speech, you know? And around this time I’m basically hoping my brother really enjoys the part of the movie where the heroes form their super-secret Project Dry Hump the World or whatever and vandalize everything but the moon. Remember that stuff? They’re “space monkeys” with absent fathers or something? Love it. It’s us! In fact, I was so into that movie that year that I wrote a letter to Roger Ebert to refute his negative review, and he referred to my letter in another review years later, some skinhead film called Pariah? Took a minute for me to stumble across it because he took my quote out of context to make fun of me, but the spirit was there, I guess. Technically, that was my first publication! Speaking of publications, I was so into that movie that year that the fold-out CD case for the soundtrack served as a receptacle for all my short story rejections. Eventually, I had to tie a string around it to contain them all. Luckily, the literary world has switched to paper-free rejections so I can save every single one forever. I was into that movie that year is what I’m saying.

But there at my second viewing I’m not thinking too much about the movie because my dad’s right in the room and I feel the need to impress him. Poor guy came to see me play basketball once, back when I’d get a whole two minutes on the court but only if we were winning by 50 points. So I’m all wound up and picking lime seeds from my teeth and maybe it’s the one and a half Coronas talking (did I lie to you guys earlier about drinking three?) but I suddenly have one of the best ideas I’ve had before or since. I realize that I’ve seen this movie before!

Now, I don’t mean “seen this movie before” as a metaphor, as in I’ve had run-ins with people who won’t move seats, although that’s true, too. I mean I’ve seen this particular movie before, and this means I know how it ends. So I can totally ruin the ending. Ben’s ending. Okay, sure, maybe I’ll be ruining the ending for my brother because I’m gonna have to lean over him to tell the immovable object the Big Twist. But it’s a small price to pay really. Collateral Damage and all that (which was a great title but a terrible movie three years later). So at about the point when megastar whatshisname is standing naked in the doorway of the Port-O-Potty or whatever and snapping a rubber glove and asking his doppelgänger if he wants to fuck a cantaloupe when he's done (I really need to see it again), I lean over real far, practically a goddamn ventriloquist dummy in my brother’s lap now, and I say:

“Okay. See that dude? And that dude? They're the same dude! That’s the twist. That's how it ends, man. Turns out that guy never existed.”

His gives me a thumbs-up, which is more than I can say for Ebert.

“Makes you think, huh?” I go on. “Anyway, I just ruined your fucking movie! What do I win?”

He gives me another thumbs-up, but my brother grabs my face to get me off his knees and practically shouts a “Thanks, numbnuts!" into my ear. But would he have figured out the twist on his own? Who can say.


And now the muttering all around us picks up again because I’ve apparently ruined the ending for a whole lot of other people, too, even the drunken, fire-haired monster up front who’s having a sneezing fit. But I sit back smug and watch the rest of the movie in peace. Well, almost in peace. About the point when the viewer would realize that the enigmatic, devil-may-character with the washboard abs is really the narrator with the mediocre abs, and that this really is the twist I mentioned, and that I really did ruin his movie, Has Been stands up.

My body is tense because I know there’s always the chance you can get your ass kicked by even the Has Beens of this world. But he just slides past both me and my brother, ass-to-face, of course, because he was totally paying attention to the movie, unlike me, and he gets the last word before he clears our row forever.

“Save my seat for me.”

And that’s when I recognize him. Ben? I went to undergrad with this dude. You’re not gonna believe this, and that’s okay because at least it’s not a split-personality situation (and I’d never do that to you), but in our dorm, he was part of yet another ill-fated roughhouse club, which wasn’t called that yet, but was sort of like a fight club, except we tied dish towels to our hands like wimps. Sounds weak, I know. And it was nothing like me and my brother’s roughhouse club, which was almost legit, judging by my more permanent injuries. But even though you’d think the first rule of Roughhouse Club would be “noogies,” me and this dude ended up knocking a chair through a wall with our tackles and fuzzy towel fists. And these battles raised enough bread dough on our heads to give us some simian profiles on our college I.D.s (in fact, one teacher started calling me “Early Man” because of the swelling), but we all hugged it out because the first rule of Hug Club is “awwwwww.”

We roughhoused off and on for all nine years of my Bachelor’s degree, in between watching Deep Rising, the only VHS tape in our apartment. Not to talk about too many movies at once here, but Deep Rising isn’t very good, except for the scene in the elevator with the peanut, which I still think about sometimes. In fact, when I hear someone say something about the mega-popular game Dead Rising, I think they’re talking about Deep Rising. And although one’s not that much better than the other, it’s still kind of like the difference between a fight club, a roughhouse club, and a club sandwich. Full circle!

But then I suddenly realize Ben couldn’t have been part of undergrad Roughhouse Club because Roughhouse Club was post-Y2K, somewhere around 2001, and it would be two years from now, after we’d all seen Fight Club, of course, and I can’t really explain the discrepancy. But what’s the third rule of Roughhouse Club? Time travel!

Maybe it’s him, I don’t know. But now I'm edgy and restless all over again. And I fucked up everyone’s movie. And he still got the last word. It’s a disappointing trade-off that I think about almost as much as the peanut in Deep Rising. Then Fight Club is gone from all theaters a mere month later, and sales of hair-clippers have plummeted, and Pixies album sales have plateaued, and when I think about ruining the movie, I just keep thinking about how there might really be a cat loose in that theater instead of my bottle, but I hope it’s a rat instead. A rat can live on candy (and pizza and peanuts), but a cat? No way, pure carnivore. And, even worse, because my whole family heard Has Been’s “save my seat” very clearly, they decide later, after a discussion huddled around midnight waffles, that with the unexpected twist of his dramatic last line, this particular object formally known as “Immovable” truly got the best of me.

I accept their embarrassing assessment, but argue that I should still be an inspiration to seat savers everywhere. Then I look around the Waffle House for a jukebox to play some patriotic music and declare if there's ever a kid on the bus who won’t move over to let one of them sit down, they could, at the very least, pull off one headphone real fast to hear what he’s listening to, then tell him how the song ends? Then let it snap back on his ear. Ice cold.

“Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy…” I sing.

“Shut up, Dave,” my sister says, then slowly explains to me that ruining a song on a bus really isn’t the sort of situation I should equate with the Civil Rights Movement, and this is when I excuse myself to the restroom and accidentally bump into a little kid standing tip-toe at the urinal so he has to put a hand in the piss water to remain standing.

“Shit rolls downhill,” I don’t tell him, “Not just in a theater.”

Back at the table, I declare the evening a huge success, that my family finally understands why we all love movies so much (seriously, my sister and I both audibly gasped when Project Mayhem was in that video store erasing all those videotapes with the magnets, as they had clearly already gone way too far), and why I hope to roughhouse with Ben again someday. They promise to see another movie with me, but maybe not to make it a tradition. Except my dad, who could give a shit. Or is it “couldn’t give two shits.”

Months later, my sister is working at the movie theater (and probably the Waffle House, too, because she’s a hustler like that), and she talks me and my brother into sneaking into the theater between movies to look for the cat she never found. We try to help her, even though we know in our hearts that, much like us, cats and bottles that are bold enough to bump and scramble past everyone’s feet don’t really exist with the lights on. But we check under every seat, and we find some Coronas and peanut shells down by the door. Some of the bottles still half full because I’m a lightweight. But it might have been urine in those bottles because we all practically live there now that my sister can get us in for free (this is now the greatest Corona ad of all time).

Oh, yeah, epilogue. I went back and saw that movie a third time on my own, saving a seat for Ben, but I guess I’ll be saving it forever. Next time, remind me to tell you about when we went to see this thing called The Sixth Sense? Normally I wouldn’t endorse a film with a child star since they have no business working with adults, and if you really want kids in your movies you better start making them air-traffic controllers, too, or shut the fuck up, but this movie gets a pass because that’s not a child in the lead at all. That was clearly an adult, buried up to his knees like Dorf on Golf. But you know what sense your “sixth” sense is? I don’t either, but it spoils movies, and you gotta feed it, and when you do I hear it works best if you alternate your movie snacks from salty to sweet back to salty, and even though our bodies and brains are beautiful miracles if they're not fed properly they shrivels up like that old umbilical cord your mother saved for me, and that’s totally the wrong kind of twist. And maybe the worst mom joke ever.

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About the author

David James Keaton's fiction has appeared in over 100 publications, and his first collection, Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He is also the author of the novels The Last Projector and Pig Iron (maybe soon to be a motion picture), as well as the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz. He teaches composition and creative writing at Santa Clara University in California.

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