He throws his motorcycle jacket over one shoulder, like a matador’s cape, and sashays through the front doors of the arena. Heads turn. Double takes. Women fall out of love with old husbands and new boyfriends. Men discover sexual urges like new continents, untamed and open to their atrocities. He draws more stares by avoiding their eyes, running a hand through his pompadour, an ageless black sea. He’s still got it. Clamped tight in his hand like a corpse in rigor mortis.
He gives the rose to the woman with the clipboard by the barricade. She’s so flustered she has to check twice to find his name. She starts to move the velvet cord for him but he leaps, pirouetting over it. He can feel the lasers of her eyes burrowing into him from behind.
There is a cluster of reporters and photographers around the first few dressing rooms. They’re here to talk to the contenders. As he passes, one of the doors opens, a star on it sprayed with cheap gold paint, and the mob fights to get in position. A man is elbowed back and bodies domino into him, knocking him against the wall.
He’s stunned for a moment. Sucker-punched. He grabs his head and lurches forward. He trails his beauty behind him like a bruise.
He finds his dressing room down near the end. He shuts the door and hangs his coat on the wall. It’s only when he flips the switch and the bulbs around the mirror light up like a marquee that he gets a bit of truth. He’s still got one hand locked to his head. His hair is out of place. Sliding down the side of his head like a great slug.
He pulls off the piece and drops it on the counter, where it pools in a black puddle. He sits. His head shines like a beacon. A murder of crow’s feet perches at the edges of his eyes.
When he takes off his shirt, there are grey hairs clustered like a small island in the sea of his chest.
He takes off the rest of his clothing, folding each thing carefully and placing it on the counter.
He pulls on his white shorts. They still fit. The length is in fashion again. They smell like cobwebs and dust. Old is new. Then new is old. The life of the undead.
Someone knocks at the door. Just a minute, he calls.
He slides the piece carefully into place on top of his head, tugging it in all the right places, smoothing out the swoop in the hair. He shuts off the mirror lights. Okay, he says.
The door opens. An old man comes in. His hands are wrapped, gloves dangling around his neck. I thought it was you, he says.
It was the French fighter. They used to spar. They were both a little precious. Watch the jaw, Frenchie would say. Don’t touch my hair, he’d answer.
Sit, sit, he says now, kicking a chair out.
I don’t want to bother you.
No, no, I insist.
Maybe just for a minute.
The other man sits, settling into the chair like a cold man into a bath. He pulls the gloves off from around his neck. They don’t say anything for a bit, then:
Saw a lot of the old guys coming in.
Oh, you know, the big guy with the crown. The guy with the turban. The Russian, you know, the one who beat me that time.
Everyone beat you.
More silence. Then:
Big man here yet?
Likes to make an entrance.
Maybe a new champ tonight.
Or maybe an old one.
No, not me.
They both think, Maybe me. It’s the dream of a smaller dream that still sleeps somewhere deep inside them. The seeping dream of something better.
Then more silence. Stretched like warm taffy. A comforting silence. Two old friends at the end of words. Then:
Well, I better get back out there, I’m up first.
Down first, too.
Ha ha, the old man says, unwrapping the bindings from around his hands, one at a time, then slowly winding them back around again. This is my last match, he says.
How long you been saying that? They both chuckle.
Well, he says, the doorway cracked half open. He puts the gloves back around his neck, sinking a little with them. Watch the jaw, he says.
Don’t touch my hair, he says back.
The door shuts with a rush of air, like the lid being closed on a coffin.
He leaves the lights off. He reaches up to touch his hair and then stops. Drops his hand. Makes a fist. He’s still got it. For a while longer. A few more years. Hours. Seconds.