Trail of Sawdust, Dave K.
This story was originally published in 5293 Quarterly (September 2010).
The bell rings, ending the second round and sending us back to our corners.
I check my bottom back teeth with my tongue to make sure none of them are loose. They're fine. I'm less successful trying to will some spit into my mouth. It's hot in here, and we've been kicking up sawdust for two rounds, and the dust in my mouth is turning to brick.
I sit on my stool and the tension in my shoulders drips down under my shoulder blades. I can feel bruises spreading across my ribs and chest, blood welling where the skin has been punched raw. My manager Toland is splashing water on them, which doesn't help much. Maybe if someone in the crowd threw a beer at me, that might do it. No such luck, though. All we get are empty cups and cans, hurled against the electrical grid penning us in. The guy I'm fighting backed into it once and I can still smell the result.
A voice from the first row cuts through the crowd muttering and tells Toland that I'm getting knocked out tonight, and all I can do is smooth out sawdust with my foot and let Toland handle it. The hotel whose basement we're fighting in has robot staff in tuxedos and white gloves, and glass-walled gravity lifts, and telescreens in the sidewalk out front. Really. If you look down, there's someone from the news yelling up at you about the economy, right there under your shoes. There's a mall across the street with holograms that address you by name like they've known you since childhood and look sad if you pass by or through them. And we're fighting on sawdust in a windowless room with Formstone on the walls, mimicking the kind of dingy bingo halls professional prizefighting outgrew 50 years ago.
The electrical grid is disabled between rounds, and the second it cuts out, fans start throwing stuff: bottles, pens, dead fuel cells, wadded-up diapers, whatever's close at hand. The intelligent telefeed cameras have to scurry around like amphetamine rats to avoid all the garbage. God only knows what people watching this at home are seeing. I get motion sick pretty easy, so if it was me, I'd have to use commercial breaks to throw up.
Speaking of, one of my first fights was an ex-fireman in a hotel conference room done up like an old rodeo barn, and some hick up in the box seats dumped vomit—real, live vomit—on me as I walked out to the grid. I've never figured that one out. Either there is someone on this planet who can vomit on command, or they threw up and saved it for that moment. I'm not sure which option bothers me more.
Now Toland is dumping water over my head while I size up my opponent. Ideally, I'd have done this earlier, but I had my hands full trying not to get my ass kicked out there. Funny how dodging the guy kept me from getting a good look at him.
He's smaller than he fights. Probably six feet even in his socks, add boots and he's six-one. Can't be more than 230.
I fought much bigger guys back when I was young. I'm six-two, most of which is torso, 236 as of today, and I was just over being dismissed as a preliminary guy. Practically everyone else in the game was six-five, six-six, jacked, backs peppered with zits from steroids, arms purple and veiny from bicep/forearm implants. Some guys did both. I didn't do either. Last thing I needed was my deltoid rolling up like a window shade mid-punch.
That's probably what shrank everyone to my size. No point in being able to throw a car over a fence if you can't lift your arms over your head. Fans, in the end, want young healthy fighters beating each other into jelly for their amusement, cartoonish physiques or not. Hell, six-one and 230 is a big guy in this game now. Last couple guys I fought looked like the school bus dropped them off out front.
He's got good legs, too. Not in a gay way, his calves look like someone filled them with concrete. No wonder he can stand and slug it out. If I tried that, I'd turn an ankle. Probably clack my knees together, too. That really hurts.
The waterfall over my head dries up and Toland shoots lukewarm water into my open mouth. It's gritty. Smart money says sawdust got in there. Whatever, I'm thirsty and not blessed with options. Toland tells me I'm doing great. Slapping me on the shoulder. Looking good out there, kid. I've got my legs back. I'm a champion. I'm a wrecking machine. I'm a weapon forged on the anvil of Hephaestus himself, whatever that means. My ears are burning, probably because Toland's cigar is bobbing as he talks and ashing itself out on my cheek.
Toland has the marble-sized knuckles of a fighter, and it amazes me that a guy as aggressive as Toland never considered taking on the game. Of course, in his day he'd have been about a foot too short to be taken seriously, so that might have had something to do with it.
The referee checks to make sure I still know what city I'm in. I tell him, and he does the same for my opponent. Toland reminds me that we're finishing in this round. Don't go down off a body blow, wait for a stiff headshot. This has to look legit. He asks me if I understand, and I do. He slaps me on the back and tells me we're gonna be rich. I tell him I'm well aware. The odds on this kid are 7 to 1. He's young and strong, but reckless and untested, and he's never fought anyone with my experience. Plus, I have momentum from winning my last few fights.
The bell rings.
I stagger up and immediately trip over one of my feet, instinctively grabbing around for balance. Thank God I missed the grid, although dropping onto my knees hurt about as much. A collective chuckle buds in the crowd and blooms into hostile laughter that withers as the referee helps me up and asks if I'm okay. I am.
I barely have time to assume a stance when my opponent charges me. I usually keep a close body guard because it's such a big target, and I try to keep low so there's less to it, but my knees aren't having that after the opening pratfall, so I'm wide open when he lights into me with jabs. I swat them away from my face, but at the expense of my ribs. One of his shots strays left and almost hits my kidney and I nearly go down. But it's gotta be a headshot.
My kidney is screaming now, echoing into my chest and stomach, but I still manage a couple of punches, one of which backs him off me. I go to lean back, expecting ropes for whatever reason, but I remember the grid and nearly fall over again trying to reverse course. Again, the ref steps in. I'm fine, dammit.
Someone in the crowd calls me a bad word and throws something, probably an empty can, but the grid blocks it.
The ref lets us go, but he steps on my foot as he walks away and doesn't apologize. I've got pretty big feet – size 14E – so he probably figures I'm used to it. And I am. But he's still an jerk. I bet he's one of those guys who would try my boots on at a party after a couple of highballs and stomp around in them before sitting down and putting his feet up on my coffee table, making sure everyone sees how ridiculous my boots look on a normal person. I want to punch him more than my opponent. Unfortunately, my opponent still wants to punch me.
I return my attention to who I'm fighting. I look at his face this time, his thick eyebrows, his thin lips, his patchy mustache, the high-and-tight haircut his trainer probably made him get so the grid wouldn't catch his hair. He doesn't even have cauliflower ears yet. All the bruises on his face give him an unfortunate maturity, but he looks like he should be cutting class to smoke in the janitor's supply closet, if kids still do that.
Below the neck, his skin is pulled taut over muscles reciprocating like pistons, powering an engine so far beyond mine that it's embarrassing. Even if I won this fight, all I'd be doing is punching out a boy who rushed into a man's body and won't have anything to show for it when those pistons stop firing.
I decide to bait him in with a flurry of weak jabs and a haymaker that will miss and expose my head for a quick shot. It'll look like he capitalized on a mistake from the winded veteran, who will split the payoff with his trainer, 60-40. I should feel bad about this, probably. It's a blemish on my most noble profession, in which able-bodied men lace their boots up and punch each other stupid, the better man to win. It's supposed to be about strength, stamina, heart, and cunning, and the alchemical mixture of those things that makes a winning fighter.
But it isn't. If it was, retired fighters wouldn't be such sad sacks, all zig-zag noses and brows sloped from nerve and tissue damage, their foreheads puffing out like taffy. They wouldn't be up to their blown-out knees in unpaid medical bills, left with nothing but bitterness towards the promoters and agents who screwed them every which way, and the same unsourced platitudes about there being no strategy left in the game anymore. All the young kids wanna do is get endorsements and look pretty for the girls. As if having no options beyond trying to kill each other makes our line of work more noble.
And hey, 7 to 1 odds. That's more than enough to live on until I find something else to do with my life, even after Toland's cut.
I hunch over at the waist, something I never do, and charge in like a bull, snapping my left hand out at him like a wet towel. I catch him right above the left eye and he staggers. Then he fires back, swinging just above my temple, thank heavens. It sounded much worse than it felt. I drop like an empty sack, making sure to sprawl out as I land, sawdust misting up around me. My head lolls to one side and I'm staring into the sawed-off muzzle of a camera lens. I give it my best glassy-eyed stare before rolling my eyes up at the ceiling until the camera skirts away.
The crowd roars, banging the backs of their chairs with their hands as the ref counts me out. I stare up at the lights and listen to the noise gain speed and momentum as the ref passes six. Was this what it felt like when the Vikings showed up? Loud and bright and hot, and when you heard two thousand of them tilt their bearded heads back and holler as one, you fell to your back, defeated? That same warrior menace is in the air now, and I'm almost embarrassed that it isn't coming from me. I am a warrior, dang it. Who are they? High school dropouts or slumming businessmen, collectively powerless, living vicariously through what goes on in the grid. They yell and throw things and load water guns with drain cleaner to shoot us in the eyes (which happened to a guy I trained with; he's blind from it), and then they go home to bed. Maybe stop by Foodington's for a cloned-nayan burger on the way home, smearing it with wasabi mayo and caramelized onions and other stuff Toland won't let me eat.
Or maybe they're watching the telefeed, dipping fried potato skins into runny french onion dressing and washing down hot wings with some of that dark German beer I love so much. Can't have that, either. All those carbs would bloat me up like a toad.
The ref counts eight. The noise swells in the smoky air and I wonder if anyone checking into the fancy hotel can hear it.
So here it is. Me, a warrior, a man who lives on soy protein and complex carbs and an hour of cardio for every 45 minutes of weights and synthetic beer that's half water, watching the lights wink at me, fully aware that everything I'm doing at this moment is theatre. I could get up right now and fight. I might still lose, but I could send that kid back home with plums for eyes and limp out of this place like a man.
But I don't feel bad about it. I want out of this game. There's no glory in a grown man beating on kids. It made sense when I had skinny calves and ethernet cable arms. When I was nineteen, fighting grown men with whiskey breath and arms swollen from implants, I was fighting uphill. I had a stripper girlfriend, I rode my hovercycle too fast and stalled it over demagnetized strips of sidewalk all the time. When I knocked someone out, or put them in a ground 'n pound until the ref pulled me up and stopped the fight, I felt good about it. But I get older every day. And they get smaller, and younger, and all of a sudden I'm the bully everyone wants the underdog to beat. No. Worse than that. I'm the one all the bookies are rooting for.
The kid's arms shoot up in triumph and the pounding is drowned out by a steady, cacophonous roar as many shocked, jubilant voices converge. Then I'm being lifted up by Toland as a half-full cup of beer splashes off my shoulder. Venue securibots block us off from the crowd and we take the long walk back to my locker room, leaving a trail of sawdust that thins out after a few dozen paces.
I don't look back.
Toland tapes up the cuts on my face and asks me, as I'm pulling on my silver unisuit—hideous, but it's in style so I might as well adapt—if I thought I could beat that kid. I say yes. Toland agrees and pats me on the shoulder, and we shake hands.
We leave the hotel through a loading dock in the back and step out into the street, which is lit up like the inside of an old pinball machine. Everything is traced in neon and slick from the reflected light, even some of the people. The clubs we pass have lines bending back into alleys and side streets, and every time the doormen let someone in, thumping drum loops burst out from the open doors until they shut. A woman lets her purse swing from her flared shoulder and it hits me in the side. I turn to say something and realize that it probably cost more than I made tonight. I don't think Toland saw it. He walks too fast to notice much details.
I catch up to him and tell him that I want a steak. He nods, and tells me I deserve one. I ask why. He tells me that I did a good job tonight. I gave the people a lot of drama, and it's gonna make us rich.
My fists clench, but I nod and pretend to listen as he explains how and where we collect the money from his bookie. It's complicated, and every word of it grinds like a rock blanket into the moral center of my brain, and besides, all I'm gonna do is get into a cab with Toland and keep my mouth shut. Why he insists on telling me any more than that is beyond me. I'd call it honesty, but we just rigged a fight. I'm not sure what it is. But I do know that Toland never fought for a living. If he can't feel the way I do now, then he's better off holding the water bottle.
By the time we get to a restaurant that doesn't have people waiting for tables outside, my stomach is clenched tighter than my hands. I tell Toland to get us a table while I get a rock out of my shoe, and the second he goes inside, I hail a hovercab and jump in.
The driver asks me where I'm going. He smells like herring and I can barely hear him over the runo-song dance pop bouncing out of his radio. I hand him $20 and tell him I don't know.
Dave K. lives in Baltimore. His work has been published in Front Porch Journal, Battered Suitcase, Cobalt, Queen Mob’s Tea House, [PANK], X-R-A-Y, Barrelhouse, and on the LED billboard in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. He is the author of stone a pig, MY NAME IS HATE, and The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado.
His website is okaydavek.com.
Here’s his Newsletter and here’s an excerpt of The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado in Queen Mob’s Tea House.