You sure this is what you want? the artist asks him for the fifth time, needle in hand. When he doesn’t answer, the girl just shrugs, leans in and the pain begins.
It’s not the kind he’s used to. It’s low, constant, the buzzing of a mad bee, not sudden, arrhythmic blasts. That kind of pounding resonates in the bones for years, rattling into chambers of his body he never even knew existed.
Pain makes the hours pass. When it’s done, the girl tapes a piece of gauze over the right side of his face, scissoring through the section over his eye so he can see. Keep that on until tonight, she says, Then let it breathe.
No problem, he says, paying her in cash.
And keep it out of the sun for a few days, she says, as he pushes through the door.
What about the spotlight, he says, letting the door close off her answer.
His bodyguard is still chain smoking menthols in the alleyway, pretending to keep an eye out, but really just swiping things one way and then the other on his cell. Go home, he tells the guy. He leans into the window of the Benz and grabs his duffel bag. He tells his driver the same thing, Take the night off.
They argue a little, just to earn the paycheck, and then the bodyguard ducks into the front seat, his knees up to his chest, and the driver toots the horn as they take off down the street. They’re happy to leave him. They can’t quite say why. He makes them feel strange.
It’s only a couple of blocks to the arena in Hell’s Kitchen. He walks it, slowly, letting his mind go. Cement cracks under his feet, thunder rumbles overhead. Records fall in front of him like bodies. Most fighters try to age gracefully. He doesn’t age at all.
He calls the arena into being before him. Steel and cement, girders and brick. The city forms around him.
There’s a throng of people gathered near the doors, smoking. They move to either side as he gets close. They all recognize him, but nobody’s going to ask for his autograph. There are legends. Louis, Robinson, Marciano, Ali. Names whispered in the quiet reverence. There are legends and then there are dreams. Like him. Things that shouldn’t exist.
The doors slide open. He crosses the threshold. He stops at the beer stand. The bartender sees him, knows him and disappears into the back room. All the kegs release their carbonation.
He looks up at one of the video screens over the stand. The ring is empty. People are restless. They’re waiting for him, like cacti under the promise of a single white cloud. Let them wait.
His dressing room is the first one. His name is in big letters across the door, like a hazard sign. He closes the door and takes his clothing off, folding each piece carefully, until he’s standing naked in front of the mirrors. Only the gauze across half his face hides his dignity. His body has been cut from marble. His skin refuses imperfections. Wrinkles cower in darkened corners.
Nobody pokes a head in to tell him it’s time. They wouldn’t dare. Time only progresses when he advances it. He doesn’t put on the gloves. He doesn’t even wrap his hands. He leaves the dressing room naked. Nobody calls it indecent. It’s the most decent thing.
They’re all waiting for him in the tunnel, lined up on either side, as he walks through into the arena. Bloody, battered. Old. Fighters when all the fight’s gone out of them. They don’t speak to him. There are no fist bumps. Heads are bowed. They are knight errants after the crusade. Their armour rusted. The grail lost.
The crowd receives him in silence as he exits the tunnel. The pause has become so pregnant that it needs to be induced. He is a caesarean section slicing into the ring. He severs the ropes like an umbilical cord.
He goes to his corner. He sits on the stool.
All eyes turn to the opposite tunnel.
They are ready. They are ready for his opponent. They are ready for another dream fight.
He squats there, naked as the day he was born. Before he knew how to hurt. He’d never thrown so much as a single kick in the womb, his mother would say. He made up for lost time. He lived a life of casualty. He pounded. He broke, he punctured and ruptured, rended and wreaked. He wore a necklace of earlobes around his neck. He ripped out hearts and showed them to the world. Over and over.
No opponent enters the arena. Maybe there is no one left. The chatter begins. Blood they want blood. They paid for it. They want to collect. They want embolisms, hemorrhages and aneurisms. They want a champion. They’ll swarm into the ring and rip him apart to get one.
They become silent again as he walks to the centre of the ring. He pulls off the gauze. And holds it in his hand like the scrap of a dream.
He’s not sure what repetition brought him here. Of the tens of thousands of punches thrown, the hundreds of rounds circled. One of these reverberations or their accumulation revolved him renewed into a new revolution.
He rotates, taking his time so the whole arena can see it. It’s a bat signal, a care bear stare, a proton beam. A beacon at the edge of an ocean of blood.
He drops the gauze, letting it flutter to the canvas. The last towel ever thrown. It’s over, it’s over. The war is finally over.