Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.
Itwas a good fight, and even though I won I got that restful feeling you get after a really good ass-kicking when your body quits fighting and just lets everything be. Like you’re pudding --- peaceful like that. Just a bowl of pudding on a picnic table on a pretty day.
The truth is I’m sore, real sore. Nothing broken. Least not that I can see. You never know about your insides though, about what goes on inside of you down deep. It’s like this one dude Momma got a hold of --- one of those jittery, wiry, little motherfuckers that’s always trying to con you. He was renting a room from us when we lived in that green stucco Cape Cod on Brown Street and he just up and quit paying his rent. Told Momma he’d pay it when he got it, goddamnit woman, and blah blah blah, but then three weeks later he decides to move out without giving her a plug nickel. Well, Momma fills like five pairs of his pants’ pockets with razorblades right before he left. We heard he lost a finger.
Your head’s like that, you know. You think it’s some safe pocket you can slip your hand into willy nilly, but it ain’t.
Sometimes I feel. I mean I feel fine, and I’m doing something like weeding under the porch steps or fixing the gutter and I’ll start crying. No idea why. Just suddenly I’m bawling like a baby and I don’t even know if it’s happy crying or sad crying.
Ain’t that the shit? Out of the blue, there’s black clouds tangled all over me like spider webs and I feel like I’m going to die. I feel like I want to die. Thank Jesus that’s usually when my training kicks in. Conquer your mind, conquer your breath, and just let everything you worry about, all your horrible thoughts, float down a muddy stream like a pack of dead dogs.
I’ve been training a long time. When I was little, Momma made me a body bag out of an old army duffle and stuffed it full of my father’s clothes, and some monkey bones she said she’d bought off some geezer at the flea market. We hung the bag from a ceiling pipe in the basement between the washer and the drier, in front of the deep freeze full of some animal’s body we kept but never ate. When I woke up from nightmares, I would go down there and beat the hell of it. Pop. Pop. Right. Left. Back of hand. Front of hand. Chop. Palm. Fist.
“That’s right,” Momma would call out to me even when she wasn’t there.
She would call out from the dust in the corners of the basement, would call from the mason jar of canned pickles and from the deep freeze. “That’s right. Hit that motherfucker.”
And boy howdy I would.
You got to learn to hit bone, you know. That’s why that boy from Cincinnati didn’t do so good. I mean, he freaked my shit out the whole time we were fighting with those gold teeth of his, his grill, but when it came to hitting he just didn’t have it in him. Most of his practice came from hitting bags with padded gloves. But you got to learn to hit bone with your bare knuckles --- your bone.
When I was eight, Momma signed me up for lessons at the Flying Tiger Kung Fu Studio. I learned blocks and elbow-strikes and also met this feller who knew how to stick needles into your body to get rid of pain. Ain’t that something --- needles to get rid of pain? It’s like using money to get rid of greed. But I’ll tell you what --- the needles worked. I still see that needle feller after every fight. I go to his place up there in University Estates, hop up on the massage table out back, and he tunes me to the right stations.
People always ask me about my daddy. Chip off the old block and that shit. Did he box? As a kid, was he a big, old, strong farm boy or some pale faced New York immigrant awkward with a mouthful of someplace else? Did he eat hot peppers like candy? Smoke his Marlboros unfiltered?
Was he hung like a mule?
Lemme tell you about my daddy.
This happened before I was born, in a parking lot on the edge of Hardin County. My Momma and daddy had gone to see my aunt’s band, Rocky Top. They were coming out after the show, all lit up, and some guy started in on my Momma about supposedly hitting his car door with hers. They were in one of those big gravel parking lots and this dude had a green Oldsmobile that was like his girlfriend. That’s how Momma put it to me later. His girlfriend. Like he pried off the gas cap at night and stuck his ding-a-ling in.
My Momma, she don’t take shit. She’s tiny but she’s got that Irish blood. More than once they’ve hauled her off to the pokey ‘cause some smartass did her a bad turn and thought she’d just turn the other cheek and let them do her another. A lot of fires and dead dogs say different. A lot of razor blades. Anywho, this man, Bobby --- a dick’s name if there ever was one --- he ended up slapping the shit out of her.
It’s burned into my mind like Christ’s crucifixion --- that scene. I can see it clear as day, clearer than my own face in the shaving mirror.
The parking lot lights are raining down on them as they trudge out. Overhead, the July sky is swirling and clouds scuttle across it like beetles. Momma and daddy reach their car as the headlights of the other cars begin to pop on like bottles breaking. Momma is just opening the door as Bobby swaggers out and a dent that ain’t there (Bobby I imagine as this tall, fat fuck --- bald with a ZZ top beard). Next thing you know, Bobby’s screaming at Momma, gnashing his yellow teeth at her. I guess he’s expecting her to get scared and back down and confess to hitting his car, whether she did it or not. Momma don’t play that way though. She jabs her finger in his throat, crooks it into that hollow between the collarbones that cops like to use, and tells him exactly where he can go and who he can fuck when he gets there.
That’s when Bobby hits her, backhands her so hard that she had a bruise shaped like the back of his hand on her cheek for a good month. Oh, Momma. Poor Momma. I see it. That slap. The shock of it. Your missing tooth flying out of your mouth like a spit watermelon seed.
That’s the scene, the horrible scene. And you know what my chickenshit daddy did when this happened?
I’ll tell you. He just stood there. Stood there like a raccoon’ll freeze when you open the back door, all holding out his hand and going, “Hey buddy, hey buddy.”
Hey buddy! Jesus Fucking Christ. Every time Momma tells this story, I can feel her pain, like some skip in her heart. Like some skip in mine.
“Nothing,” she says, narrowing her eyes and spitting the word like her lost tooth. “That’s what your daddy did. That’s what he was. That’s what he is.”
I’ll tell you something, man. When she tells this story, it doesn’t seem like it’s my daddy standing there. It feels like it’s me ---- me, sick with shame, a way down deep shame like the shame you have for bad teeth, or a pecker that won’t work, or a mind that has trouble understanding what comes out of others’ mouths. A shame that feels like it goes so far back that it must have come with you out of the dust like what the white man feels about what his people did to the Indians.
“You’d stand by your Momma, wouldn’t you, baby?”
Momma asks me that every couple of days. It just pops out, but you can tell it’s been rolling around in her head like a soda bottle rolls around on car floorboards. I can smell her breath, you know. Old lady breath, full of hysterectomy and sour stomach. My heart about breaks looking at her --- her makeup caking in the cracks in her cheeks, all pink and blue like she’s a china doll somebody dropped and then glued back together sloppy.
Technique? I wouldn’t say I have a lot of them. I mean I know the difference between a round house and a straight kick. I know when you punch, you want to punch from the shoulder and keep your knuckles lined up with your arm. I know that 90% of fights end up on the ground, and you better know your joint locks, brother, ‘cause everybody gets their turn to crawl.
You can’t let the way Momma looks now fool you. Age shrinks you like a shirt that’s been washed too many times and she’s got that curve in her back that old folks sometimes get. But she’s the toughest coach I’ve had.
When the ravine in front of our house flooded, Momma’d throw in this little concrete statue of this black jockey and send me charging into the water after him. Damn near gives me goose bumps remembering. I’d be so frigging scared of that muddy water but excited too. You know what I mean? The water would foam and swirl and shove against me. Up into my nose and mouth and, though I was choking mud, I’d dive down --- my hand all crazy patting the ditch bottom for that jockey, wildly squeezing leaves and cigarette packs and whatnot, and the whole while a feeling of “this is it” sweeping through me like I wasn’t trying only to pull some little bit of concrete out of that ditch but like I was trying to be born before I drowned.
A lot of people’ve told me this was wrong of Momma. But you know what? They’re the same mealy-mouthed wimps who leave their kids to cook in their Beamers while they’re taking tennis lessons because nothing bad could happen to their babies now could it? They got a distorted view of reality because everything in America has been good for so long. At least in their part. They don’t like to think about the prisons, the wars, the ghettoes that keep all the ugly out of their sight. They don’t like to think their beef was once cow or their bologna a bowl full of assholes or that the vegetables and fish they still eat might have just as many feelings as the meat on their own bones.
The Chinese ain’t like that, you know. Them people like poor people everywhere have suffered. My sefu told me that in his home town in Daishan when you buy chickens and pigs they still got their heads and feet on them so there ain’t no way you can forget the universe’s score. That’s how it is on the farms in America too. You see that sweet face and those sweet eyes on your dinner and then you pick up the axe anyway because you know what life’s about.
I’ll be honest though. I hated Momma sometimes. I did. I used to fantasize about her getting bitten by a rattler and some nice, Texas couple with a big white house and horses adopting me. But that’s part of being a kid, ain’t it? Resenting your parents? It was only later on that I felt blessed because Momma was doing everything she could to keep my daddy’s shame away from me. It was only later that I admired her brain.
Momma liked to read and had loads of ideas. Some of them were real doozies. She was especially big on dreams, visions, that sort of thing. When I turned twelve, she started dropping me off into the woods way past our house on the weekends.
The first time I had no idea what was going on. It was a good hour past my bedtime, and she’d just come into my bedroom and told me to get in the car. It was April and, while the days were warm, the nights were still cold enough for the windows to frost up. I was shivering in the Bonneville in my cut-offs and ACDC T-shirt, freaked out like you get when you’ve just woken up. As the city lights disappeared behind us like little fires going out, I started getting queasy and came up with all sorts of awful ideas about what she had in mind.
Maybe I had disappointed her at last.
Maybe she was going to take me to the Greyhound station and ship me off to my daddy’s people in Vermont.
Maybe she was simply going to drop me off on the side of the road like a dog that won’t take to housebreaking.
About twenty miles out, she pulled onto the shoulder of the road, just past the sign that let us know we had passed the Grayson county line.
I looked over at the scrub pine hillside next to us, steep and studded with shale, and then I looked over at her. She just stared straight ahead. I could smell her perfume, more like Lysol than a flower.
“What’s going on, Momma? Did I do something wrong?”
She shook her head, still not looking at me. “No, you’re doing fine, just fine.” She bent across me and opened my door.
“Then what are we doing here?”
She took my chin in her hand and squeezed hard. “We’re trying things the Indian way. Now I want you to go down in them woods and make your way home through them.”
“Hopefully, you’ll have a dream while you’re doing it.”
“A dream? What kind of dream?”
“A dream that will tell you how to be a man.”
I didn’t have a dream that night or the next but the trips taught me to be ready, to be aware. When you’re walking at night, in the middle of the country, you imagine monsters everywhere ---- all around you wood creaking and popping, raccoons and squirrels leaping out of the trees, water gurgling, the wind shaking branches. And you got to keep walking --- past that darker bit of shadow that ain’t got no streetlights near it, through the water that goes up to your neck and makes you imagine that all around you are dead bodies and dead dogs floating. You got to keep walking even though you’re scared as fuck.
Every time we went out, she dropped me off a bit further. By summer, when I was out of school, it was taking me up to a week to get back home.
There’s two kinds of cultures. Warrior culture and pussy culture. How Momma raised me is how warrior cultures raise their kids. The Indians sent their boys out into the wilderness too you know. For days and sometimes weeks on end with no food and water. Told them not to come back until they had their special dream. Everybody thinks that’s all great on television and all but when you’re a modern boy, black or white or alien or whatever, people holler about how it’s fucked up. Let me tell you --- there’s just different ways of being, that’s all, ways of being for different purposes. Some ways got honor. Some got shame.
I’ve tried to understand what would make a man a coward like my daddy. I’ve looked at all kinds of pictures of him trying to see it in him, you know --- in the way he held himself or crossed his arms over his chest, in the size of his ears or feet. Truth to tell, he was a funny looking cat who’d inherited a palsy from his people so that his hands shook. He was as tiny as Momma which is weird in a man. He tried to make up for this with a big-ass moustache and sideburns like he was one of the Village People. Now, I know it ain’t easy being funny looking but he had this way like he was malicious about it, like he was trying to make sure you didn’t miss it, like them fat women who wear half-tops and those sweatpants with BABY GIRL written across their big wobbly asses.
There’s this one picture that yanks my chain every time I see it. My daddy’s standing in front of this crab shack next to the bayou, over this stretch choked with shopping carts that the neighborhood kids and bums tipped over the bridge to piss Krogers off. He’s wearing green polyester pants, a brown cowboy shirt with fake pearl buttons, and a raggedy pair of some sort of generic sneakers. A scarecrow. That’s what he looks like. Not one built for the cornfield and meant to scare crows. But one built for the city and city needs. One meant to stand near viaducts and abandoned lots, one meant to scare the kids. No, you don’t want to be like me. Pile of moldy rags, pile of moldy bones, good for punching and not much else.
In that picture, it’s like my daddy’s trying to look funny on purpose just to spite Momma, to make her look ridiculous for being with him. It doesn’t work though. Next to him, Momma looks even more beautiful. She’s wearing a blue dress decorated with little gondolas. Our rat terrier, Sparky, snuggles up to her ankle, hell bent on keeping anything bad from happening to her --- his little black eyes full of total dog love and total dog trust. Oh man, Sparky. That damned dog. You know, I cried for four days straight when he got run over. And you want to hear something crazy? I finally did have a vision on one of those walks Momma had me do. A vision about Sparky of all damned things. No Grandmother Bear or Grandfather Stag for me. No giant talking spider, no hole in the earth popping open and my ancestors crawling out of the second world like black ants. Nope, my spirit animal was a raggedy little terrier.
The night I had the vision I finally understood the difference between visions and regular dreams. It’s like the difference between a hot fuck with somebody you love and jacking off out of habit. A totally different kind of energy.
Momma had dropped me off next to a water tower beside some railroad tracks. I loved walking tracks, the steady rhythm, pieces of shiny coal off to the sides of the rails like a trail of breadcrumbs. Railroad tracks are a perfect combination. On one hand, they lead somewhere definite. There’s an end of the line that you can trust. You know that you’re only going to be in the wilderness for so long. At the same time you have this security, though, you also have the surprise of what’s around the next bend.
This was one of those times Momma had gone all out and hauled my ass to bum fuck Egypt. I knew I had to be a good hundred miles from home. Luckily, since I had the tracks, if I kept up my pace my return time would be cut to around three days. And I could hear Nelson Creek nearby so water would be no problem. The bad news was that we’d just come off a hot spell --- one so bad that the nightly news was filled with stories of old people dying in their apartments because their air conditioners were on the fritz or because they couldn’t afford their electric bill. As a result of the heat, the blackberries were shriveled to tiny black and red turds and most of the field greens looked like plugs of tobacco.
Despite this, the first couple of days were easy peasy. I caught some crawdads and ate them sushi style along with a mess of dandelion greens and cattail roots so I wasn’t too hungry. But then on the third day, a little after noon, my lower back and legs started aching. At first, I put it down to walking on the ties funny but a few hours later my whole body was hurting and I had a fever and a sore throat.
I kept going down to the creek to drink and splash water on my face but I stayed thirsty and hot. I wanted to just lie down and take a nap but I knew the later I got home the more disappointed Momma would be. By late afternoon I was dizzy as fuck.
Anyway, I’m wandering around, half out of my gourd, burning up and pouring out this piss-like sweat, strangely remembering the taste of all these things I had eaten as a little kid: soggy McDonald’s french fries drenched in ketchup; cherry chapstick I slipped out of Momma’s pocketbook; a rainbow trout my daddy had caught; some rabbit we had at his cousin Ronald’s house; pea and carrot baby food. It’s like my mouth is living my life backwards.
I head for the creek again, this time making up my mind to fuck drinking. I plan to sit my ass down in the water until I’ve washed my fever away. From the tracks, I scoot down a hill of loose coal stinking with a dead possum and kick some sticker bushes aside to get to the creek. I’m shoving some tree branches out of the way when it appears in front of me: swollen and lit golden by the moon.
It don’t look like no earth creek. It looks like a creek from Mars or Jupiter. Mostly this is because of the way the moonlight is hitting it and because of the fever but it seems like something else is happening too.
I stare at it hard, dip my foot in, and that’s when the water shifts and lights up like the moon’s sunk down close to it thinking it might get some of the heat off it too. Motherfucker, I think to myself, my head’s cracked open and all my memories have spilled out. I’ll never get them all back in.
The lit up water’s scrawling with shadows like an old Zenith TV before it comes on all the way. Slowly, the images brighten and sharpen. There a hand, there an eyeball, somebody walking a road. And the little thing there, that’s Sparky, ain’t it? And that there’s the road by our house?
Sparky running. Sparky running across the lawn. My vision follows him like a camera --- follows him as he runs a zigzag in the grass, head bent forward like a little bull, follows him across the front porch, through the azaleas losing pink and orange petals like tiny pieces of clothes and follows him onto the driveway. The thing is, though, his running ain’t just a bit of dog craziness. No, Sparky’s chasing something --- because I see it fall from the sky in an arc as if an angel’s dropped it --- a hambone thrown from on high.
In the drive, Sparky’s all over that hambone, his tiny eyeballs bulging, rolling, and flashing their whites. Then I hear an engine start up. I can’t tell where the sound is coming from at first. I think it’s an engine in the earth and then it seems to be coming from the sky. Is the engine then or is the engine now?
A voice shouts --- familiar yet stranger than the lands you travel in your sleep --- God? Is that God I think? and then I see the Bonneville.
I can only make out the lower half of it as if I’m staring through a basement window. A green side panel and black wheels rolling, rolling down backward, so quick and fast and hard it’s like they’re laying the driveway a moment before they move down it.
Sparky doesn’t have a chance. He crumples beneath the passenger side rear wheel like a paper bag, disappears with a wet pop and the sound of snapping twigs.
The Bonneville stops and then slowly moves forward. Behind it, like the mulch tossed behind a mower, is Sparky. The voice I heard earlier in this vision is shouting now and I see myself --- smaller, weaker, blurry like a painting someone still has to add details to, running out of the house and screaming like a girl. The voice shouts to me: “Look, boy. Look at what your daddy done now!”
I never did make heads or tails of my vision. I’m not sure what it meant that Momma was driving the car, though, a shrink they made me see in the army told me it must have been symbolic of some buried resentment I had against her. Could’ve been. I was after all a teenager with a full hate-on for the whole world. Whatever though, that was the last time I had to do one of them walks and everything I did after that night was directed to this day and this last round. Brother, you know who you’re looking at? You’re looking at the official toughest man in the world.
Hell, yeah. It took me a long time to get here. But tonight, all those cheers you hear coming from down in the pit? All those cheers rising up around the ring like layers of a birthday cake? They ain’t for me. No, brother, they’re for Momma.