Heights aren’t really my thing, so I only look down briefly. Just enough to get the gist. Some crazy motherfucker, spinning in circles, riding his bike on the walls. A blur that defies both gravity and sanity. I’m not here to watch a sideshow though.
I shift my gaze to the assembled crowd. A lot of families. Honest, wholesome people. Curiosity seekers who love the spectacle, the magic. The type who hold their breath and offer prayers even though basic physics says what these daredevils are doing is relatively safe. Especially for skilled professionals.
And there are the others. Gawkers, I call them. Those that want the rider to fail, that want to see the carnage. The type of people who get off on pain. A couple of them recognize me, they point and smile and whisper to each other and I know they will be here later too, after the fair closes to the public. They will be here to watch me.
The walls don’t look as tall from the bottom of the wooden pit. The air tastes like burnt rubber and gasoline. This is definitely a first for me, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve fought in all sorts of places. Rundown boxing rings. Empty swimming pools. Old warehouses. Cement pits still slick and sticky with the blood of unfortunate animals, forced to fight for the amusement of the most fortunate beasts of all.
I look at the crowd. It’s mostly men, though there are some brave females sprinkled throughout. I see the guys that recognized me earlier and give them a nod. My eyes continue around the makeshift ring until finally, I find her.
We met at a party in L.A. a couple years back; both part of the evening’s entertainment. I was there to fight. She was there to fuck. It’s not pretty but it’s what we do, how we survive. We make our way with blood and sweat. It’s all we have, the tears dried up long ago.
She tries to smile. She doesn’t want to watch me fight. I know how she feels, the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach that’s slowly creeping up her throat until it almost chokes her. It’s why I can’t watch her videos. But tonight, I need her here. I don’t trust anyone else, and neither does she.
* * *
My old man used to say that once you get used to the taste of blood, you’ll learn to like it. Maybe he said it as a way to cope with some deep down guilt about smacking me across the mouth. Maybe he had no guilt and just said it to try and toughen me up. Either way he was full of shit, I’m used to it, but I still hate the taste.
I hate the pain too, but there’s no getting used to that. The throbbing knuckles, raw and swollen and disjointed. The short, stifled breaths as my lungs try to expand and contract in a cage of broken ribs. The electric jolt as my nose breaks for the hundredth time. There are no romantic notions here. None of that Tyler Durden, fighting makes me feel alive bullshit.
I fight because it is my gift, beaten into me by a man who was supposed to love me, who was supposed to take care of me. In a sad, sick way, I guess he did. My gift will be my escape.
I glance back up at her. She gives me a weak smile. She understands. In the dark of night, she fell prey to her father too.
* * *
I stare across the wooden pit at my opponent. The last of the gypsy kings, champion of the Irish bare-knuckle brawlers. One hundred ninety pounds of pure gristle and bone. Stories of his fights have reached near mythic proportions in the dimly lit backrooms where such things are spoken of.
But most of this blood-thirsty crowd isn’t here for him. He isn’t the one with millions of views and thousands of followers on Youtube. He isn’t the one dubbed by the media as the “Lord of the Underground.” In this world, he is a relic, a boxer who has never studied the militaristic martial arts of sambo and krav maga, who couldn’t tell you the difference between jiu jitsu and a jujube. Tonight is being promoted as a crossroads, a generational shift, the passing of the torch from the old school to the new.
The murmurs of the crowd begin to build. I hear the bookies screaming, taking last minute action. The odds have increased. It’s up to seven to one for me. I try to shut out everything and everyone.
The referee brings us together. He explains the rule. The only rule; we go until one of us can’t.
I study my opponent’s face. His scars are a roadmap of hell. I look into his eyes. I don’t expect to see fear, but it’s right there, in plain sight. Has it been too long? When was the last time he fought?
We shake hands and start to cirlce. My jab fires quickly, mashing his lips into his teeth. I jab again and swing for an overhand right but his uppercut collides with my chin. I crumple to the ground. He swarms quickly and I can do nothing but cover up as he rains down punches. His fists dance, finding their mark again and again. I look towards the referee. He won’t interfere until I’m out cold or I submit. Another punch lands flush. I tap and the ref pulls him off me. The crowd erupts, some cheering, most jeering. I look up and find her in the crowd.
I read her lips. “Are you okay?”
I spit blood on the ground and nod.
* * *
As we sign the papers on the RV, I look at her. It was all her idea. Not long after we met, I asked her what would make her happy.
“The open road,” she said as she weaved her fingers into mine. “Just you and me and the open road.”
“And how exactly do we do that?” I asked.
And so she figured out a way. The videos. The internet celebrity. All her creations. She saved every dime we made from exploiting our bodies and when the right time came along she bet it all.
On the other man.
Losing doesn’t hurt bad at all when it pays so well.