Fiction: The Pugilist

Read More: A brief interview with Jordan Farmer

The only woman I ever loved told me secrets. Always at night, the bulbs of our empty wine glasses illuminated by the television’s glow. Kansas winters cut to the bone, but Gabrielle and I left the hearth’s coals cold, preferring our own heat. I worshipped every inch of her body, but the conversations were my favorite part of our time together. She wanted to know all the things I’d sworn to never utter aloud.

One night while picking at leftovers, she asked me about the worst story I’d ever heard.

“The worst details or the worst delivery?” I asked. She normally indulged that sort of deflection. Just smiled so deeply it seemed the corners of her mouth might split. That night, she pressed me.

“You know what I mean.”

“I really don’t. Like the grossest thing ever? I knew a kid in High School who passed a kidney stone. They found him in the boy’s room, pants still around his ankles and lying face first in the urinal.”

I’d been rubbing her knee, so she stopped my hand from traveling further up her thigh. I thought maybe she wanted a Southern horror story. Since I was a hillbilly from a coal mining town, she sometimes asked if I’d experienced any racist evil. Things another white man might have told me while feeling safe amongst his own.

“I want to know the saddest thing you’ve ever heard.”

“I’d have to think,” I said, but already had two contenders in mind.  One was something I did to a boy named Brandon a long time ago. The other was the time my father shot his best buddy, Clarence, in a backwoods poker shack. They’d been drunk and dad thought Clarence had palmed a suicide king. My father tried to carry his wounded friend down the mountain, place him in the back of the Impala and taxi him to the hospital, but Clarence bled to death before they descended the final hill. When my father confessed it to me in the basement, he said it was the only person he’d ever killed during his outlaw days. “I never murdered anyone else,” he said. “But, if I’m being honest, that was mostly luck.”

Despite all the other secrets I carried, something kept me from sharing this. I didn’t have the narrative power to explain what dad must have felt when he realized his legs were too tired and that the leak of black blood from Clarence’s liver would drain dry before they reached civilization. The story shamed me.

Anyway, by that point I assumed she just wanted to talk about her own tragedy.

“What about you?” I asked.

The heaviness in her chest sailed out on a sigh.

“My brother threw his ex-wife out a fifth story window. He was drunk and she wouldn’t tell him where the car keys were hid, so he pushed her through the glass.”

I didn’t know if I should touch her, wipe away the tears that were sure to come.

“It hurts knowing that some part of him is part of me,” she said.

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Years later, I was daydreaming about Gabrielle when I pulled up on the Dairy Delight and saw it looked like someone had been gutted in the parking lot. The ground was covered in a thick red goop, but even from inside the truck’s cab, the smell wasn’t right for blood. I’d had plenty of exposure to that sharp metallic tang during my med school days out west. Still, the scene made the sugary scent of melting candy a relief.

My toy machines hung crooked from their metal poles. Their glass fronts busted out, the ground littered with the multi-colored gumballs and little plastic orbs filled with dinosaurs that grow in water. The damned things always came out deformed. A limb shorter than the rest or the tail shrunken. I sat in the truck and looked at my bucket in the passenger seat. Only three dollars in quarters. A shabby return even for a weekday, and I’d already hit the high payoffs in front of Wal-Mart. This work was getting harder and harder to justify. I took the bucket and climbed out.

The vandals had smashed open the coin mechanisms. Considerable work since I dropped them often and never cracked anything. They were cheap, but built like old Buicks. Someone must have heaved hard with a sledge to cause such damage. I wondered about the use in loading everything up for repairs. It did feel good to take the pieces apart and reassemble them. I liked the grease on my hands, the security in knowing the broken gears could be replaced at my leisure. No matter the circumstances, each component would lock into place and operate smoothly. There was no fear that a slip or wrong decision would ruin the object’s vitality. I liked operating on something sturdier than flesh.

One of the milk maids came outside as I inspected the glass shards on the ground. I didn’t recognize her and decided she must be new. The girl looked sullen in the uniform. Her white jeans and stained white smock caught the morning sun as she produced a cigarette from the band of her red visor, leaned against the brick wall and lit up. She wasn’t old enough to be smoking, but a hardness around her mouth kept me silent. I decided she wasn’t the kind of girl to accept concerned warnings from a stranger.

“Got yours too, huh?” she said.

“It would appear so.” I kicked away some Mike & Ike’s and picked up one of the plastic orbs. Inside, a small Triceratops lay imprisoned, waiting to be watered into something underwhelming. It made me wonder why I ever thought this a smart business venture. It wasn’t even a decent hobby. Kids weren’t awed by things like this anymore. Maybe they never would’ve been if boys like myself hadn’t grown up so poor for excitement.

“They hit the ones over at McGrew Tire, too,” the milk maid said.

“No kidding.” More shit to worry over. I wondered if I was responsible for cleaning the mess. I hoped to just load up the machines and leave the milk maids to sweep up.

“Yeah, been a few places around town. Assholes sprayed dicks on the side of Colson Hardware.”

The milk maid flicked ash, looked at the distant road with a stillness I’d observed in country women since my birth. She remained as stationary as the mountains grown up around us, only a foot tapping to give away the internal boredom. I suspected life would find a way to purge that squirrely impulse. Especially with my hometown’s tendency for early marriages and addiction.

“I know the ones did it,” she said. A smirk raised the corner of her mouth. I saw she was calculating the angles. “You want their names?”

My initial reaction was to just climb back into the truck. I didn’t need a list of teenage vandals and wouldn’t know what to do if I did track them down. Still, I kept looking at the tiny fetus of that spongey Triceratops, feeling the pull of the sticky asphalt whenever I shifted my feet. I might as well go tell them what they’d cost me.

“How much you want?” I asked.

The milk maid pitched her cigarette and considered the value of a premium informer. Just a little caution remained since hustling was bred into both of us. “Fifty bucks will do it.”

“Twenty,” I countered.

“I got to live around here, man.”

I handed over two twenties from my pocket. Her fingers were cold and speckled with drops of chocolate. The smell of waffle cones filled her hair. She stuffed the money into a snug jean pocket. It took a bit of wiggling.

“Melvin Blevins and Richard Hill. They drive around in a black Toyota. Bunch of assholes.”

“Why tell me?” I asked. “Couldn’t you get in trouble here?”

“Melvin and I used to date,” she said as if it explained everything.

I decided the machines were worth it. I’d load up the busted pieces and cruise through downtown, see if I spotted these peckerwoods.

“The other girls told me about you,” she said. “They said you used to be a doctor or something. Is that true?”

I knew she hadn’t recognized me the moment I pulled up. There was no fear in her posture and my last name always brought an aura of intimidation into each new meeting. People expected the mad blood of my father to flow through my veins. Still, asking if I were a doctor shocked me. I’d been back home so long, it surprised me to meet someone who didn’t know the whole sad story. Small towns like Coopersville revere their legends. The residents pass down tragedies and triumphs through the generations to teach lessons. I remained unique because my life fell into both categories. People might be forgetting, I though. The possibility made me hopeful.

“Something like that,” I said.

“What’s a doctor doing this shit for?” she asked.

“I didn’t finish school.”

The milk maid scoffed. The poor reserve a particularly strong distain for the few among them who squander opportunity. We know privilege is too fickle a gift to waste. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t that simple. Perhaps offer one of my father’s stories so she’d understand I never had a true chance. Instead, I toed at the candy scattered across the asphalt.

“Just keep my name out of it,” the milk maid called as I turned for the truck. “Like I said, I gotta live here.”

I nodded. “I gotta live here, too.”

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On the days when my class dissected cadavers, I worried the smell permeated through the latex gloves. I’ve never had proper surgeon’s hands, just bulbous, broken knuckles and crooked fingers. The digits are malformed from my days as a grade school pugilist and the thousand practice punches thrown in the basement. Many nights, dad held the bag while I punched blindly through the swollen eyes received on the back of the bus. I can remember the sting of sweat in the fresh cuts, the swat of his hand on the back of my head when I’d tire out. He’d grip the scruff of my neck and remind me that the holler boys wouldn’t allow time for a break. Now, I think he was angry about the reputation I’d failed to uphold. By the end of the night, my hands would be full of a phantom tingle that lasted through morning, too numb even to feel the impact against another boy’s chin.

The fact that my hands work at all is a blessing. Whenever I pulled the thin membrane of latex over them, I admired the stark whiteness and how it was free of any scars. Gabrielle used to trace theses marks. The divots between each swollen knuckle, the wrists that would only bend so far because of the breaks. She used to say, “such perseverance shows a certain dogmatic vigor,” but Gabrielle always had the right words. Before opening the flower shop where I met her, she studied Victorian literature and used to talk about the fallible nature of language. “The only true human miracle,” she once said, “is this broken system of articulating ourselves.”

I touched her with hands that held dead hearts hours before and feared she’d recoil. It was the opposite, of course. She’d ask about the smells or textures, wonder aloud what it was like to be elbow deep inside a person. I didn’t know what to tell her. The bodies didn’t bother me. There seemed no lingering clues as to who the men and women had been or what kind of life they’d lived. All that I observed was the stark truth of absence. The idea that meat is all we are and it keeps no secrets once we depart.

One night as we lay together in bed, Gabrielle spread out atop the sheets.

“Show me where everything is,” she said, pulling up her tank top. Her fingertips traced over the muscles of her stomach.

“Getting morbid again,” I said. It seemed a stupid game, but I was so appreciative in that moment. I was aware of how lonely I’d been a thousand miles from home, living my first winter on the frozen plains without the security of the mountains. I’d tried everything to staunch that loneliness. I spent nights buried in books or out wrapped up in bar lights looking for someone to listen. The idea that I was in her bed astounded me.

I placed my hand on her stomach, circled her navel as I lingered on my way toward her right side. “Here are your kidneys.” I moved upward to explain the spleen, the lungs and over the peak of her left breast to rest atop the heart.

“Women’s bodies aren’t really different,” I said. “Once you get past reproductive organs, our anatomy is the same.”

Gabrielle smiled, kissed the back of my hand and observed the scars that tracked underneath the wiry hair.

“What about skin?” she asked.

“What about it?” Every time we approach the idea of race, I feared she didn’t trust me. My redneck raising would forever keep me from being believable and, like a dog raised to bite, people seemed to think I was predisposed to an eventual act of prejudice. Still, I didn’t blame her for being cautious. I’d seen plenty of hate in the men I grew up around.

“Well, historically it’s made a difference.”

“Not to me,” I said.

“Your people wouldn’t have something to say if you brought me home?” Gabrielle asked. “I wouldn’t have to sit on your porch and look at a neighbor’s confederate flag?”

“My father wouldn’t say a word,” I lied. “If he did, I’d shut him up.”

I took her by the chin, ran a thumb over her cheek and lower lip.

“I’m not like those men,” I said.

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The vandals’ truck was parked in front of Eugene’s gas station, dropped low on a flat tire. I sat across the street watching as the driver, a long-haired boy in a jean jacket and hiking boots, jacked it up. The other boy sat on the curb. He swigged from a bottle wrapped in brown paper and counted a Ziploc baggie full of change. His fingers sifted through the denominations, found only the quarters and stacked them into a row of little towers each worth a dollar. […]


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Originally from West Virginia, Jordan Farmer received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His stories have appeared in the Southwest Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Baltimore Review, Pembroke Magazine, Day One Magazine and many other publications. His novel, The Pallbearer, will be released November 6th 2018 (Sky Horse Publishing).

Read More: A brief interview with Jordan Farmer