He had been in countless fights as a young man. Fighting had defined his life-path, had shaped his features. His spirit sported the adjective fighting like a battle-scarred pit bull terrier: this man was game. This man never curred. This man never veered when he walked the streets. He took a straight path, a manly path. He walked with a directness and confidence that made lesser men tremble.
One day as the fighter briskly walked to his gym, throwing lefts and rights to loosen his shoulders, he looked forward to a feisty sparring session. He needed to vent some bile. Life had become increasingly complex. The old rules had dissolved. The rules were confusing. These days a man didn’t know how to act.
As the fighter walked, head lowered, eyes front and centre, shoulders rolling, a man walked directly toward him, unimpressed.
When the two came face to face the fighter readied his fists.
“You don’t intimidate me,” the man said. “All that phony shadow boxing. Cauliflower ears. Who d’you think you are, Rocky Balboa?”
The man, nondescript, unimposing, sloop-shouldered, weak-chinned and pencil-necked, could not have been physically confident enough to seek a confrontation with the fighter. What was his angle?
“What’s your angle?” the fighter asked.
“Angle? Ha. I’m merely standing my ground. We live in a civilized society. Violence is repugnant. Your macho act is so yesterday. Welcome to the 21st century, Tarzan.”
The fighter’s heartbeat quickened. Never a good thing.
“I’m struggling not to punch you out,” he said.
The man smiled. “And yet, you haven’t. See, it’s working. Talking. Talking like two human beings, not like two adversaries. Not like two foes. We are not foes. We are brothers on this earth.”
“I said enough.”
With that, the fighter continued to his gym, where he pummeled his sparring partner into abject submission. When the sparring partner complained about the beating, the fighter said, “I am not your brother, man. I am not your fucking brother.”
Tito rubbed his hands together. He wanted the numbness in his fingers to stop. He couldn’t get any work done. He sat on his hands for a few minutes and this helped, but not enough. He went to the bathroom and ran hot water over his hands. Much better.
In the living room he looked at all the junk on his coffee table. It had accumulated so quickly. He’d only lived in the unit for a month, and already it resembled a sty. He needed air.
He put on his runners and a light jacket. It had been warm for September, but windy.
As he walked from his tenement to the nearby plaza, he tripped on a sidewalk crack and fell down, striking his head on the concrete pavement. He blacked out for a second.
When he came to, a man in black with a long nose and strange eyes stood over him.
“That was some fall. You damn near cracked your noggin.”
“I’m okay, I think.”
The man’s teeth were set so far back in his mouth, at first glance he appeared not to have any. Also, he wore shoes with no socks.
“Do you need help standing?”
“Give me a sec.”
“I am?” Tito touched his head and sure enough felt the blood. He looked at his gooey fingers. Blood dried quickly.
The man handed him a paper tissue. The man was wearing a loose black suit with no shirt underneath. His wrists were so thin they looked like sticks emerging from his sleeves, attached to clown hands, for his hands were bizarrely red and swollen.
“You’re an unusual-looking man.”
“People say that, yes.”
“I mean, you look pieced together.”
“Don’t we all?”
The man’s eyes weren’t quite aligned on his face. The right sat at least an inch lower than the left.
“You better get that looked at,” he said. “You might need stitches.”
Speaking of stitches, only as the strange man walked away did Tito notice that the back of his head was shaved and bore a purple scar a half-foot long that resembled a zipper.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
I struck the match-head against the box. It flared and bloomed into an orange flame. I lit the cigarette and pulled on it. I filled my lungs with smoke. My head reeled.
“How long has it been?”
My friend knew how hard it was for me to quit. He questioned my return to the smokers’ fold. He inquired what my thought process had been when I arrived at the decision to light up again.
“Well,” I began, but then exploded into a ragged coughing fit that went on for several minutes.
“Jesus,” said my friend, “sounds awful. Can I get you some water?”
He went to the kitchen and after a moment returned with a glass of water.
I drank some between coughing jags. It was warm and tasted peculiar. I looked at the glass. The water in it swirled with particles.
“What is that?” I asked.
My friend frowned. He took the glass from my hand and held it up to the light.
“Looks alive,” I said.
My friend nodded. He returned to the kitchen.
The cigarette continued burning, but I couldn’t take another puff. My lungs felt scorched. My head spun. All told, a horrible experience. I opened and closed my mouth.
“Here,” said my friend, “try this.”
He handed me a glass of orange juice.
“Orange juice gives me heartburn,” I said. “What’s wrong with the water?”
“What’s wrong with water, what’s wrong with the water, like I’m a fucking scientist. It’s bad, man. The water’s bad.”
“But I drank it.”
“Yeah, and like, bro, I’m real sorry about that. Real sorry.”
I looked at the orange juice.
“Fresh-squeezed,” said my friend.
“Yeah, bro. Fresh-squeezed.
Image Credit: Adelphi, Bill Brandt (1939)