I’m face down on the canvas floor, my mouth pooling with blood from a surprise left hook, temporarily blinded and mostly deaf. But through the high-pitched ringing I can just barely hear this big drunk crowd losing their minds, can feel my coach pounding the canvas by my head, can hear him screaming UP, UP, UP, UP! UPPPPP!
His name is Phoenix but I don’t think it’s his real name and he won’t tell me what it is, like so many people in boxing won’t tell you their real name. My girl’s stage name is Diamond but at least she’s told me her real name, which is Diondre – but no, not Phoenix, the man with no name. But he’s won a ton of titles, this short smooth black man, who is brilliant and looks nothing like what you think of when you think of a boxer. And he wanted me SO badly to win this one – but I am done.
I can feel the sweat falling off the massive machine of a man prancing above me, the one with the shady left hook, steadily spitting his own blood through his mouth guard and who would doubtless kill me here and now for the title money if it were legally allowed. But it’s not legally allowed to kill someone while ON the mat, so I stay right here, not moving, waiting it out, til the bell rings, and this whole failure of a night can be put to bed.
Phoenix is driving me home now, like always. My head is slumped against the passenger window as I watch the San Bernardino County Line sign wash past us in the darkness and I feel Phoenix raging at me without saying anything. The gangster rap is usually so loud the car is vibrating but tonight? Tonight we drive in silence, the car only vibrating from his unspoken hatred towards me.
“So why don’t you just say it, man?”
“Say what?” Says Phoenix, “Say you’re a loser? Say you gave it up like a fucking cheerleader on fucking prom night? Yeah you already know that. What you want me to say huh?”
There’s a long silence.
“Say you wanna fire me, cuz you wanna fire me, right?” I’d wanna fire me. I get it, I do.
Phoenix says nothing.
Finally, he shakes his head. “This is it man. I can’t give you any more chances. You got the Salinas fight in February and that’s it dude. I can’t keep doing this shit. You can’t do this shit TO me.” He looked straight at me like I was ruining his life, which in a way, I know I was.
I just nodded and slumped some more and pulled my hoodie down over my forehead. I wanted to quit right now but Diondre woulda killed me. We drive the whole rest of the way in silence, watching the yellow center line just being swallowed up by the car as we go.
Now I’m drinking in a bar called “The Alibi Inn” – so deep in the desert that Tortoises and Roadrunners most definitely outnumber humans. It was mostly Diondre that kept me straight for the past year, to be honest, ever since I quit working the strip club as a bouncer and got clean and sober and then I started winning fights. Okay who am I kidding, it was only Diondre. And this night is my first night drinking after what feels like a very, very long time. I cleaned up for her, to keep her, I knew it and so did she.
But then we started fighting more than talking. And then we had that massive fight over how I couldn’t pull it together and she needed a car that didn’t have 270,000 miles on it to get to and from her job as a dancer, which by the way she pointed out always happens at night, driving a long ways down a desert highway without a cell signal, and did I GET that? Did I get that this is not just some shit she’s talking about but her LIFE here? And did I get that I was circling the drain, losing fight after fight, costing us money and sucking us both dry, and she was NOT going down that drain with me? She was not going back to her family in Nevada or dancing in Vegas again and I could just fuck myself if I thought so.
I didn’t care how much Diondre yelled at me; about anything really. I loved Diondre like I’d never loved anything in my life. I even loved her kid, Tyler, who was 5 and ran around the house, naked, making drumming sounds and licking the outlets because he had some weird disorder. I didn’t care that she was a dancer and had to work til 3 giving truckers lap dances til they got hard and inevitably tried to slide their hands between her perfect thighs til the floor manager had to come and intervene. I didn’t care what she did to be fucking honest. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen up close – and that was the truth of it. I couldn’t even believe she’d chosen me, out of all the guys she coulda picked. And then I fell in love with her – and that was that. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine my life without her and, yeah, I do know, I was a total sucker. It was the oldest stripper joke in the book really: “Will the customer get fucked? Oh he’ll get fucked alright. He won’t get laid – but he’ll get fucked!”
Cuz sure enough when I got out of the car, the house was dark and silent. Empty. No Diondre, no Tyler, no TV set even – though to be fair, that was hers all along. She threw ‘em all in her car with 270,000 miles on it and went God knows where but not Nevada as she had made clear to me already. I couldn’t even call her b/c I had no idea where the hell she was and she’d left her pre-pay burner phone on the kitchen counter as the ultimate ‘fuck you’ so I could never reach her now. I hadn’t paid the burner phone in over a month so it was worthless to her anyway and was a constant source of tension between us – my forgetting to pay the damn phone bill or just not having enough at the end of the month.
I was telling all this to the retired lady next to me with the bleached blonde hair who was pretty far gone already, and even though it was obvious she was totally disinterested, I told it all anyway. I honestly had nowhere else to go tonight and no one else to talk to – and I was pretty sure if the guy in the suede coat ever got back here, I’d be scoring some coke, which was all I really needed at this moment.
Then a redhead sat down on the only seat left, right next to me, and ordered a beer. She smelled so delicious and I wondered how women smelled so damn good because I’m pretty sure it’s not just perfume.
“How’s it going?” I asked her.
“Ok,” she said, all polite and disinterested.
I could tell she was tipsy by the way she was sitting but clearly more sober than me. It was gonna be hard to impress her, especially with my complete lack of job.
“Having a good night?” I asked.
“Just waitin’ for my boyyyyyfrien’,” she said, slurring a little. But I knew enough about women in bars to know that was a lie. She was here for a round just like all the other drunks that were still here at 3 AM in this 4 AM bar.
“Lemme buy ya a drink…something nice…how ‘bout a cocktail?”
“Oh I’m good,” she said, peeling the label from her bottle of beer.
Then we just sat there like that, in silence, for a while til she said “You know what? Why not? Maybe a screwdriver?” she said, emphasizing the “screw” part. So maybe tonight wasn’t going to be total shit after all.
“Sure,” I said, smiling, “what’s your name?” and she said it was Candy, but she said it like a question like “Candy?” – so I was sure that was another lie. Probably she was a dancer and what did real names matter out here anyway? The desert is where you came to re-invent yourself after all, make your own story.
I told her my name and bellowed “Barkeep!” – louder than I thought I would and with a big sweeping move of the arm– I always got kinda dramatic when I got drunk for some reason. “A screwdriver for Candy!” He tried to stop from giggling.
It arrived in a pretty little glass, a golden drink with a perfect little orange slice on its rim, like some kind of artwork really. Clearly, nobody ordered these things and the barkeep really wanted to show off his creative side tonight.
No sooner than the drink arrives and the boyfriend appears, grabbing Candy by the arm, spinning her around and yelling, all red-faced, about what a loser drunk she is and how he’s had it and how this is the last fucking time he’s driving from bar to bar trying to “find you, you fucking loser.”
I was in his face now, ready to kick some ass. “Get. Off. Her.” I said calmly, my body inches from his. He could see right away he was going down. It was my size and my bald head that always did it, even before a punch was thrown. I could see it in his eyes like I’d seen it dozens of times, in pretty much every fight I’d ever won, that fear.
He stepped back slowly.
“YOU!” said the Barkeep, jumping up in my face now, and he was a little guy too, so it was almost funny. “Eighty-sixed!!” he barked.
“Hey!” I barked back, “he’s obviously in her face!”
“You. Are going. Now.” He replied.
“I’m not going anywhere til this shit leaves.”
“And we just ordered a drink!” yelped Candy, all pissed, standing next to me now, like a tiny but very protective Chihuahua; her pretty drink still in her hand.
“Don’t give a shit what you ordered!” says the barkeep. “You’re out now or I’m calling the cops – is that what you want? Cause I’ll do it,” which I knew was another lie. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard that one before.
Candy was now right in front of the guy, right in his face.
“He wasn’t doing anything wrong. You’re just a fucking asshole!” screams Candy, throwing the drink right in his face. And I mean direct hit.
Naturally the barkeep explodes.
“That’s it!” he says wiping his eyes, “calling the cops. Right. Now. Call the cops!!” He yells to the other guy behind the counter. “What you did?” He’s looking at Candy, “ Assault! That’s called assault!”
I’m a little stunned by the blow and I’m having a hard time standing anyway.
“Let’s go!” yells Candy to me, but I’m too confused. Why are we running? What’d we do wrong? What’d I do wrong? I don’t understand.
“You stay where you are!” commands the barkeep, “Cops are on their way!” The other barkeep is running around the bar – I’m guessing to block the door.
But Candy is pulling my arm with everything she’s got. “C’mon honey let’s go!!” she begs.
I let her pull me to the sidewalk where I stand woozily for a minute with her in a total panic.
“The cops are on their way – I’ve got my car round back – let’s get the fuck outta here!”
“This is wrong, all wrong!” I say. “They can’t arrest you – over a drink for God’s sake! I mean c’mon…” I’m pissed as a mother fucker now and in my deepest and most threatening voice I boom through the glass: “You can’t do this to her!”. But on “do” I smack my hand against the glass at them and it cracks. It cracks.
Out runs the barkeep– “And that’s vandalism!” he screams. “Vandalism!! And Assault!”
Candy is pulling me one way and the barkeep the other – and I’m just trying to think.
“Look,” I say to both of them, “this is all a mistake.” I’m trying to calm us all down. I try to talk slower so they get me. “When the cops get here I’ll explain everything to them, exactly what happened. And they’ve gotta understand. We’ll be honest and they’ll understand…” and as I’m going on, suddenly Candy is in a car at the curb, yelling “Get in! Get in here!” and I’m just thinking, this is all crazy. I tell her, all calmly again, “I’m staying for the cops. I’ll explain.”
She tears off before the bar guys can even get down her plate.
Of course, the cops show up right then and before I can say “So here’s what happened…” the guy’s spun me round and cuffed me in one smooth move that spoke of years of dealing with drunks like me.
And once again, I was stunned. Nobody was listening. I mean nobody. Inside the cops were talking to everyone and everyone told their version of events in what I was sure was whatever way that suited them. Nobody cared or even bothered to ask me.
I just waited here in the back seat with the lights spinning red and blue and flooding my vision, looking at the unstoppable grid in front of me and behind me, feeling the hard metal cuffs against what’s actually pretty tender skin – but that you never realize is tender until right then. I thought about my situation here and how sometimes surrender is not the worst option in the world.
Because jail would be like all the other times in jail – just the same train leaving the same station. And the back of a cop car – that’s when you really thought about your life, how you got here, what would be next.
And I thought when shit went down, it always seemed like a monsoon, some flood that washes everything in its path, opening sinkholes and sweeping cars off roads, drowning the unfortunate and barely sparing the rest. But that was just part of it – a little part even – an isolated thing. My life, when I really sat here thinking it over, was more a drought or a desert. It emptied out in front of me, a hundred miles in every silent direction.
And in each direction, hid a thousand tiny disasters, little rattlesnakes, each as deadly as the next: an unpaid phone bill, an unforeseen left hook, a spilled drink at a 4 AM bar – the tiny accidents that make a life. And unmake it. Til you’re standing windblown on a playa where every horizon looks exactly the same. And all your options condense into one, which brings you right back to this cop car where you’re left to remain, waiting it out.
Kelly Burns Portman splits her time between Joshua Tree, CA and Portland, OR, depending on the weather.
© 2019, Kelly Burns Portman