This is no dance, no cat and mouse, this is war, explosive, violent. Heads flying side to side on impact, big showers of sweat flying off of faces and foreheads. A shot to the face and the blood flows out of a nose and down a chest as the opposing glove turns red. A body shot, quick, unseen, the distinct and unmistakable sound of bone breaking, the snap echoes off the walls of this dirty, smelly, dark and humid gym. Retaliation, a shot, a hard shot, so hard that sound too bounces around the walls of this place, a well-placed temple shot to the other fighter’s head.
Transfixed in the brutality it is forgotten that these guys have names, Frankie and some Puerto Rican kid named Felix.
A bell rings, both retire to their corners. End of round four.
From the fifteen or twenty assembled, mainly dregs from the bar, a woman comments they need to stop this before someone dies. Another assures her this is how Frankie gets off. He needs this and Felix looks like he's just having fun.
Sitting on his corner stool, the blood has stopped, remnants already dried on Frankie's face. He leans to the left side favoring the newly broken ribs.
A bell rings, they come at each other. Two quick jabs from Felix's left hand to Frankie's jaw and a roundhouse right to the head and Frankie is on his knees, not down, but reeling, he looks up at the lights. Watching his body move you know those lights must be spinning in his head, the entire gym must be spinning, reeling. Almost in slow motion Frankie falls on his back. We are all friends here, most days anyway, Frankie's friends and Felix's. A collective, breathless hush falls over the gym and echoes off those grimy walls.
The woman who called for the fight to stop five minutes ago now screamed, "Is he dead?"
A few people turned heads, side to side, as the talk grew louder. Some sat looking, shocked, scared, as if someone or something had appeared to them out of thin air, as if they'd seen a ghost. The talk grew louder that he must be dead. A few got up to leave. An eerie silence washed over the entire gym. All this time Frankie lay unconscious on the blood and sweat stained canvas.
A few sat and mumbled and imagined his terror. Frankie only feared three things. The God he could not believe in, death and the slim, but very real chance, that he might be wrong about it all. That the universe according to Frankie might be exactly wrong and the truth may just stand, turn around and royally fuck him up.
Someone on the mat calls out for an ambulance.
Then subtle motion in the center of the ring.
The referee walks up to Frankie as he starts to stand. He asks Frankie a handful of questions, the ref throws up his hands.
This fight is over. Decision to Felix.
The assembled friends of Felix and Frankie adjourn to the outside, standing on freshly mowed grass, leaning against the brick wall. It's a warm summer night. The moonless sky is full of stars, beautiful and peaceful. Such a contrast to ugliness and violence inside. They pass around a bottle of cheap scotch and wait for Frankie to walk with us back to the bar.
Frankie emerges from the gym, he's grinning. Jack, from the bar, asks him, "How can you possibly be smiling?"
"I cheated that fucker, death, again." Frankie grins, "There is no God. I get there, to that place right at the edge, and I'm laying it all out there. Did you see me when I was down on my knees, then down? Man, I was close, but nothing. They are all full of shit. I'm right and all the holy ones are full of shit."
Jack shakes his head, "That's why you fucking do this, come here and get your ass kicked, to prove to yourself that there is no God?"
Frankie looks at Jack and says, "No man, I do it to get that close and feel nothing. I know nothing comes after this shit show. I know this is it. This God of theirs that they keep jamming down my throat is a fairytale. Sometimes it scares me they could be right, but then I go to fight, I get that close, right to the edge, I feel nothing. I know that they are wrong. They try make me afraid of a myth. I come here to prove myself right."
Back at the bar he reaches into his pocket and pull out four or five reds, Seconal. He washes them down with rounds of shots of vodka and beers. I watch and wait as he passes out at the bar. Jack and a couple other guys drag him to the back room where a cot has been placed for nights like this. Frankie will sleep off this day’s battles among the cases of beer and booze. In its own way, a kind of a paradise.
The noise of clinking bottles awakens him, an early morning beer delivery to the bar...
Opening one eye, then the next. He reaches down, under the bed, fumbling around for the quart of vodka he left there from the last night in this room. Frantic fingers connect to glass. The bottle is dragged from under the bed to his mouth. An explosion, the empty bottle flies across the dusty store room and shatters in a thousand of pieces against a wall.
Frankie sits on the edge of the bed. He feels like he’s bleeding. His destroyed rib cage screams at Frankie in its own voice.
There is an ache in him that starts deep inside his emptiness. He possesses a spirit that echoes a hollow, mournful wail, a lost wind blowing through a burned-out landscape. The ache of this emptiness infects every muscle in his body until he becomes the ache, the pain, until nothing else remains.
He blows his nose into his hand and spits on the dirty carpet. His feet touch the floor, and he begins to stand.
It still rages, a fire from long ago, from when he was a younger man—sadly, not that long ago—from a time before he was broken. Now he is just smoldering embers and ash, but his is a fire that could rage with the slightest breeze.
Some days, he wishes he’d find the one who could cut him down for good and end this once and for all. That last, perfectly placed, cutting blow, but for now he’s got to piss.
He walks out onto the hot concrete stoop and smells the city summer air. A mix of summer flowers and diesel exhaust and a filthy gray stench fills the breeze from the factories that surround him.
He reaches into his rolled-up t-shirt sleeve and takes out his smokes, pulling one from the pack with his teeth in one smooth motion. His elegance is legendary. He takes a long draw, starts to cough, then to gag and wheeze. Resting his arms on the metal railing, he watches the sweat drip from his forehead and onto the concrete, puddling in designs that fascinate him. He leans there—coughing, smoking, and sweating—and silently prays that someone will come along and start him up.
Just one word, give me a reason. Today, like most days, Frankie has declared war on the world. It’s a silent war; no one notices. Anyone passing only sees a broken, hung-over gagging shadow, who saw his best days pass many, many days ago. No challengers approach. Frankie wins the day by default and walks on down the stairs.
It’s sweltering already, a perfect day, hot as Hell. The sun has barely risen and the sweat is running off his forehead and down onto his t-shirt.
He needs the gym. He needs the fight, anyone, just to connect, to work this out. He needs it every day. It never goes away. There is no release, only this constant need for one more. One more. One more any-fucking-thing, but today it’s just one more fight.
The thought of a peaceful life is terrifying, at best. Peace is death. He needs the struggle, the only connection he knows. When he feels the contact, when he feels a rib break, when he sees the blood fly and tastes it, he knows hes alive. It’s an affirmation. Without that, he is simply cold and numb and void.
A lot of people remember his times in the church. There were two distinct tries: God, how we prayed for an end to those days. They did end, ended with a vengeance that could only be spawned within the twisted wreck of old broken parts and songs and lies and vodka and pills that comprised Frankie. He seemed to find that terrifying peace there, in church. It confused him and angered him.
Sadly, and this is largely unknown: Frankie thinks he is in league with the Devil. It is not a joke to him; get him alone one night, especially after a fight, or when he is drunk and ask him. His list of reasons and rationale are impressive. He makes you wonder. He’ll tell you he is a heartless, unlovable, cold bastard and anyone who thinks differently is a fool who should be taken for all he is worth.
He did love that old woman, Cora, and the old woman would disagree; she loved her boy. She was old, very old, died at one hundred. Frankie thought she was crazy, if for no other reason than that she loved him and trusted him. She lived in an old house that should have been condemned. It supposedly predated the Revolutionary War. The old woman had a piano in a room of this house, a room heated by a propane stove that always smelled like it was about to explode. It was cold in that house, and always smelled bad. The kitchen floor was so crooked and sloped so badly that visitors swore the entire room was about to fall off the rest of the house. A full cup of coffee could not be set on her kitchen table. The floor slanted so much that the coffee would spill over the side.
Everything there had a purpose and a place to Frankie. That place was his home.
Even when it was clean, the table with the red Formica top and the rusted chrome legs looked like stuff had been spilled on it. A 1940s era stainless-steel-and-plastic mess, it was a thing of beauty to him. As a young boy, he would sit at this table and drink his coffee, with condensed milk and sugar, as he listened to the crazy old woman beat on that poor piano with those skinny, arthritic hands. Her knuckles were the size of walnuts, her fingers long and skinny, but she would beat that poor piano to death as she wailed those church songs. She would sing in a voice that sounded like a choking cat or a screech owl in the night, and he would sit there for hours and drink his coffee and listen. This was church, all that ever worked for Frankie.
The hot, dry summer passed and ended fairly uneventfully, sadly. Frankie always looked forward to the summer and managed to miss it as it flew by. His time passed drunkenly and slowly in a ceaseless parade of hangovers and benders.
The thought did cross his mind, from time to time, that this was no way to live. Not the way the old lady would have wanted him to live. Those thoughts ended as quickly as they appeared.
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