A Total Knockout by Drew Pisarra
For the record, I’d dated a guy with a harelip before. Well, I’d slept with him. Or her. A drag artiste. So I was no stranger to hare lips. Kissing one was certainly different but not unpleasant. Akin to a pierced lip. Or maybe a heavily waxed mustache. Unusual more than uncomfortable. The only reason I never saw that particular cabaret sensation again was because he snored. No. That’s not true. She grated her teeth. Their teeth? Have you ever heard that noise? Well, it’s awful. Anyhoo, I said yes. To Kyle. The blind date my friend Jeffrey fixed me up with. So when he rang me up and asked what do you want to do for our date, I suggested a Golden Gloves boxing match. I’d seen one advertised on a flyer taped to a telephone pole. He was surprised but game.
I admit when he showed up, I didn’t recognize him. And as Jeffrey had made unintentionally clear in his description, Kyle was fairly non-descript. The biggest surprise was that he’d arrived in a pickup truck, which actually fit right in that night at the Elk Street Theater where the match was being held. I’d been to this club a few times before for indie concerts and the monthly Queer Night but the night of the fight was the first time I’d seen so many jeeps, flat beds, and dented station wagons in the parking lot. Outside, the space was filling up quickly. Inside, a fairly legitimate looking squared circle had been erected in the center of the dance floor while the proscenium stage served as a jerry-rigged balcony on which an audience was also jam packed. Seated in the metal folding chairs, the crowd was all-ages despite a couple of heavily made-up young women in Daisy Dukes and baby Tees strutting the aisles with candy, chew, and pop. I spotted a pair of seats towards the back of an aisle. We rushed towards them as the announcer’s bell clanged.
From the sound of applause, I sensed that the fighters had entered the ring but we really couldn’t see anything since the audience wasn’t raked. A clichéd blonde walked across the stage holding a handmade Round 1 poster but the contenders had yet to appear. Or so I thought. The announcer’s voice crackled over the PA system: “First up. 55 pounders. 55 pounders. In this corner…”
55 pounds? For real? I peaked around the edge of the audience and saw two children standing in opposite corners. Their heads weren’t even as high as the ring’s topmost rope. I was dumbfounded. Had we accidentally attended a children’s sporting event? It certainly looked that way. But what were we watching exactly? Two ten-year-olds flailing? A schoolyard brawl sanctified by the community? Corporal punishment doled out by one’s peers? What we definitely weren’t watching was newly acquired skills in self-defense. There were no jabs, no dodges, no shuffles, no hooks. All that was happening was four were arms were wildly flying like windmills or a pair of interconnected windshield wipers ridiculously equipped with gloves. It was inevitable that whoever could withstand the most pain would triumph yet this match didn’t even last a full minute since one baby boxer burst into tears.
Sobbing and clearly tired, he began to retreat to his corner but stopped in his tracks when his coach/father snapped, “I’ll give you something to cry about. Get back in there.” One woman gasped. A mother, I’d guess. The child dutifully turned around. But the ref had already raised the opponent’s hand in victory. The father covered nicely with “That’s okay. You gave it your best shot. Get over here, killer.” He gave him a hug. I heard a collective “Aww.” I looked towards Kyle who gave me either a half-smile or a wince. Because of that lip, it was hard to say.
From there, the weight classes jumped by ten pounds every couple of bouts. And with each new match came an increase in focus, intent, aim, and duration. By the time they’d hit 98 pounds, the two tweens were boxing the way you’d see it on Pay per View albeit in miniature with pimples. This was actually the first match to last multiple rounds. As this particular fight wore on, I could see that one of the kids was infinitely better. He knew how to weave, to duck, to connect. He knew how to hurt. Maybe that’s what it made it so disturbing for that’s what it was. This kid had a killer instinct. He hit hard. Repeatedly. So much so that the other kid fell down. Also repeatedly. But the human punching bag also knew how to bounce back up. Some training of his own was coming into play for every time the sad sack hit the mat, he’d rebound in a perfect defense pose. He was a model of recovery. But eventually, the falls came too often, almost comically so – up, down, up down -- and the ref called the match. Kyle looked towards me with a raised eyebrow that seemed to ask, “Should we go?” But I pretended I didn’t understand and simply winked in return. If I’d had known what was to follow, I would’ve taken Kyle up on his offer for the next fight was the one that broke me. Although you could argue that I really broke myself.
You see, by now the kids were teens, and as such, young adults. We’d progressed all the way up to 110 pounds. That’s double 55. Sheesh, my mother weighs 110 pounds and while she doesn’t box she knows how to throw a punch if need be. Trust me on that one. But here’s the thing about humans. We don’t come in set sizes. It’s not as if a small is a child, a medium is a teen, and a large is an adult. Not automatically. Size does not necessarily equate to age. So when these next two young competitors entered the ring, I was totally confused because of the discrepancy between their heights. One was very tall and thin and the other, short and squat. The headgear somehow exaggerated this difference. The tall boy looked like a number two pencil topped by an eraser while the little one… well, in an involuntary moment of shock, I stood up and shouted, “It’s a midget.”
Horrible, yes, I know and I hadn’t meant any harm. But I was simply overwhelmed. I literally couldn’t reconcile the size differences – never mind the event as a whole – and I was so disarmed by the incongruity on display that I involuntarily blurted out the first shocking thing that came to mind. The crowd went silent. The shorter young man – who was not a midget by any means – turned and looked at me with fire in his eyes. If eyes are the gateway to the soul then his soul was filled with rage. Rage and pain. The crowd loved it, at least the guys in the crowd. One man behind me burst into a laugh then initiated a chant based on my outburst, a chant quickly picked up by his friends. “It’s a midget. It’s a midget. It’s a midget.” All the men nearby joined in.
I slunk in my chair and glanced to Kyle who stared forwards as if he had come here alone. Just in front of me, a mother smacked the back of the head of her son who’d echoed the refrain. She cast an angry glance my way. My mouth felt dry. My ears were red with shame. If I could’ve made myself disappear, I would’ve. If I could’ve turned back the clock, I would’ve done that too. I would’ve done that first! The feeling of having done wrong was unbearable. And around me the phrase continued.
The short guy fought with a vengeance. He punched harder for obvious reasons. From the looks of it, an inner fury was fueling him physically. He was a raging beast. “All he can do is uppercut,” snickered one of the fathers behind me as the mean-spirited chant died down. The mother in front of me looked back again as if I’d made that remark then in a moment of inspiration initiated a chant of her own: “Uppercut! Uppercut! Uppercut!” It was indeed the only punch the short kid could throw.
Other mothers picked up the chant as if they were reprimanding the men by rallying behind the underdog. Whether the short guy appreciated the support, I’m not sure but the taller guy began to falter. He’d gone from being a pencil to being a licorice stick. I knew where there was going. I didn’t stay for the final blow. I knew who was going to win. I snuck out as inconspicuously as I could. I heard the tall guy hit the mat just as I arrived at the fire exit which I quietly opened and closed to the sound of “2, 3, 4” only to see it open again with Kyle to the sound of “7, 8…” We both recognized the wisdom in getting out of there fast. It was that or get mobbed by moms and middle schoolers in the parking lot. When a kid or a woman attacks, you can’t really fight back, you know?
“Where would you like me to drop you off?”
“Gold Diggers?” I replied. My suggestion was a concession that this night was a failure. Or to be more specific, I had failed. Kyle might have had a harelip but I had the mark of Cain. It was understood I was now on my own. Alone. Again. This blind date was over. Which was fine. I’d survive. Like the loser in the penultimate match, I’d bounce back. For the moment though, I needed a drink, something with a burn all its own, something pleasantly toxic. I stayed silent the entire drive across town. I recognized that speaking would only get me into further trouble. Kyle didn’t say “good night” and neither did I. When he dropped me off outside the bar, I went right in and didn’t look back. I never saw him again (and his had become a face I’d never forget).
If you don’t know Gold Diggers, it’s a gay strip joint cattycorner from the leather bar The Boar and just underneath what had once been the local bathhouse. As locations go, it could hardly be seedier. I don’t know a lot about straight strip clubs but I’m guessing Gold Diggers was on the less predatory side since the age of the customers and the strippers tended to be around the same. Which isn’t to say that the clientele were less lascivious. They were simply less skilled at manipulation. This particular night, a Wednesday, the club was mercifully quiet. Midweek Gold Diggers doesn’t pick up until nearly 11pm if it ever picks up at all.
Because of that, I had my choice of barstools. I selected one close to the drink station since I figured it would up my chances at getting refills quickly. Tonight I wanted to get smashed. Above me on Gold Diggers’ scarred wooden bar, two guys were gyrating in g-strings. The small stage at the center of the space was empty. Supply meets demand and all that, as they say. As for the performers if you could call them that, both were lithe and lickable with tight muscled bodies that looked like package deals. All meat, no waste. Yet there were options here too. One was tall, one was short. One was dark, one was light. Yet unlike those fighters who had been my undoing, these two were of a type, as if cast from kindred molds, as if one were a photo shop replica of the other but with the size and color changed. As such, the elfin one was short without being squashed. I thought he was perfect. I like a guy who makes me feel big but not fat.
I slipped a buck in his pouch. He smiled. A front tooth was missing! That’s much sexier than a harelip in my opinion. Like he’d earned that look somehow. Like he was tiny but tough. As the night wore on, he stayed in my vicinity, not that the bar gave him far to go. Even so, he was always dancing and sometimes grinning his gap-toothed smile. He never said a word but volumes were being communicated. It wasn’t the drink talking either. I know exactly what I felt. What we felt. A wink can speak volumes when you pay close attention. If you can gage popularity by the number of bills in a g-string, I’d say he was very popular among the half-dozen present. If you can evaluate what about him was popular by the placement of those dollars, I’d say we all liked his butt. His ass was practically feathered with bills framing his cheeks like a paper version of a Tina Turner wig in green. And this was all the work of a half-dozen alcoholics.
I was flattered when he signaled for me to follow him home at closing. Sure, I’d tipped him many times but is eight dollars really a winning bid? I think he liked me as a person. Plus I was relatively tall. Some guys like that. Whatever his reason, we walked two blocks away from the club then entered a parking lot. He had on a T-shirt and sneakers but hadn’t bothered to put on pants. Well it was summer. You could see a light glisten of sweat up and down his hairless legs.
“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.
He looked back at me and grinned. If eyes are the gateway to the soul then what is a gap in your teeth, I wondered. But before I could come up with an answer, he’d unlocked a door for me -- not the passenger side of his van but the big door at back. He was gesturing for me to get in. I dimly made out a beat-up mattress half-dressed in a surprisingly clean sheet. You could smell the detergent, the bleach. I spotted a pile of clothes neatly stacked in one corner. Up front, a Saint Christopher medal hung unassumingly from the rear view mirror. Gingerly climbing in, I stepped over one of those freestanding framed baby pictures with the bronzed booties at the bottom. I wondered whether the toothless infant was him from years ago or his child today. Babies are so inscrutable.
His van was a little house, a little house on wheels, a little docked houseboat on wheels, and yet I couldn’t shake the sadness of it. I thought about the tiny house movement sweeping the country and the trailer park where my retired parents now lived and the Big Jim camper I used to play with as a kid but somehow this beat-up van parked downtown felt different. Renting a room in a communal house you can pretend you’re living above the poverty line but living in a van? That’s the lowest form of lower middle class that you can pretend. I wanted to be cool, I wanted to believe, there’s all different types, that we live how we can, that we fight to make better lives for ourselves, that I shouldn’t judge his situation or his poverty anymore than I should judge his size, his height, or his silence. Wasn’t this simply a different culture? What did I know? I didn’t own a car. I was a renter living communally with four other people who didn’t like themselves, never mind me. I heard them cry through the walls every night. Was a van so bad? It sure was quiet.
Moonlight leaked in romantically through the tinted bubble window in one corner, moonlight that wasn’t actually moonlight so much as a streetlight low on juice. He took off his shirt, his shoes. The thong stayed on. It suddenly felt unbearably hot in this claustrophobic space in the middle of July but when I panicked and tried to stand up and exit, I slammed my head into an exposed metal beam that ran the length of the roof or the ceiling or the lid or whatever you call the top of a tin can that you live in. It hurt like hell. I wanted to leave yet I was afraid to get back up too quickly. I saw artificial stars that went with my artificial moonlight. I wanted to sleep but I was scared. Should I go to the hospital? Isn’t this how Natasha Richardson had died?
I looked up from his lap and saw him mouth me a question then heard the sounds delayed as if they were coming through a Facebook feed. The voice was in Spanish. Did he even know English? Did it matter as long as he kept me awake? What I knew about concussions was that I should not go to sleep. I was suddenly afraid to be alone. I told him to kiss me. I puckered up in an exaggerated manner. This he understood. And when his lips pressed against mine, I wondered if I’d ever wake up or if when I woke up I wouldn’t remember where I was or maybe even who I was or whether I was still awake at all. Maybe I’d come back as someone else, someone who didn’t shout inappropriate names at children learning to fight strategically, someone who had stronger facial recall from random encounters at holiday fetes, someone who didn’t drink too much and ask too little and feel overwhelmed by the underwhelming while climbing in the back of a stranger’s non-descript vehicle with out-of-state plates. I let him take off my clothes. I let him pin me down. I let him drive so to speak without uttering a word of protest or encouragement or care. Well, that’s who I was then. And I’m kind of like that now. I’m a lover, not a fighter, you know?
© Drew Pisarra 2018
As one half of the conceptual art duo Saint Flashlight, Drew Pisarra helps activate poetry in public spaces including the takeover of a Brooklyn movie marquee with film-themed haiku in 2017 and the dissemination of "lost poems" first at the O, Miami Poetry Festival then DC's Capturing Fire summit/slam in 2018. Additionally, Publick Spanking, a collection of his short fiction, was published by Future Tense.
A Total Knockout was read by Max Woertendyke on 1st August 2018 for Pleasure & Pain.