He walks the backstreets like an animal. But not one that prowls, the kind that’s put out to pasture. Like the sheep Opa used to tend back in Leipzig. Wandering, looking for a patch of grass, eating just enough to survive to slaughter.
He walks until the rain takes the swelling in his hands down a bit. Until his stitched leg drags behind him like a coffin. Until the soft chop of meat stapled into his chest can’t take him any farther.
He finds a nice bar and then goes downstairs to the place underneath it. It’s dark and smells like it too. The kind of place where a person can revel in their own personal oblivion. He tucks the green hospital gown into his pants and steps up to the wood.
The barkeep laughs at him when he orders, waving his rag at the flies like a general giving the surrender, saying All we got is beer pal. Prost, he says to the barkeep’s back. He takes the first sip he’s had since being admitted. It’s warm as piss and tastes worse.
The TV above the bar is playing the fight. Even here, he can’t get away from the ring. Announcers in penguin suits are raving. The WVBA belt is up for grabs. Somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to fall down.
Prost, he toasts the fighters on TV. It’s been thirty years since he last stepped in the ring. He’d come over the ocean full of youth and venom. The fight had been his best friend. His blood. Everything else he knew was locked tight behind barbed wire and brick. His heart was a neutral zone.
But he got tired of being the heel, taking a beating. He watched the Berlin Wall come down on a TV set like this one, above the bar, and he thought, Well that’s that. Prost. But he didn’t call home. His heart was a landmine. He quit fighting and opened a butcher’s shop in Queens. There was a steady tempo to his life, lived by the handle of the meat grinder, round and round. Round after round. But the fight just wouldn’t quit him. Wouldn’t let him surrender. It played rope-a-dope, hanging back, making him think he had it licked, while it snuck the low blows into his ribcage. He could take it. His heart was a Bismarck.
Then the fight took its chance. The phone rang with an explosion of dust. They were sorry. It was his father. It was sudden. No pain.
He was coldcocked. The fight went back to its corner, victorious. They found him, facedown behind the counter in a mess of broken crockery and sauerbraten.
Still, the fight wouldn’t let him surrender. In the ambulance, in the gurney, in the operating theatre. It wouldn’t let him stay down. It threw nurses and surgeons at him, dragging him to his feet, only to knock him back against the ropes. You’ll be good as new, they said, as they cut him open. Fresh as a daisy.
And here he is. Prost.
The barkeep is talking to a gaggle of young ballcap wearing brutes down at the end of the counter. The barkeep points his way and they all laugh. He looks down. There’s a puddle of water next to his bar stool, where his heart is leaking all over the floor.
When he woke in the recovery room, a radio was playing the preamble to the fight. The names were like an incantation. Last rites cast over him. His invitation was sitting on the table next to the hospital bed.
He’d pulled out the tubes and wires and rolled off the edge of the gurney. He was down the stairs and out the doors before anyone could stop him. He didn’t go to the shop. He didn’t go home. He went straight to the old club. The smell of chalk and blood as he pushed through the doors, like a trail of breadcrumbs bringing him back. He stepped up to the bag. He breathed in.
All it took was one jab to know. His punch had gone soft, just like his leaky heart.
The crowd on the TV cheers. The first fight ends. Somebody wins, something falls down. He’s used to the boos. Everybody needs a villain. They liked him for that. His first manager stateside got him to wear his old langhosen from the academy, told him to grow the moustache out. Played him Wagner on an antique gramophone until his heart was a steel nest of valkyries when he stepped into the ring. Even after he got his citizenship papers, they wanted the act, throwing fighters at him wearing diapers with the stars and stripes on them.
They were wrong. His father had gone slowly. Bleeding out slowly over years. Decades. An album of American newspaper clippings next to him. A lifetime of silence between them.
He chucks his pint glass at the TV set. There’s the cymbal crash of broken glass and then the downstairs room goes quiet.
The hell, says the barkeep and stools shriek as the young brutes push away from the bar and come toward him. They remind him of his students back at the academy. Full of bravado. Always knowing better. None of them had learned how to fall.
He wipes the foam from his moustache, curling it right to the tip. He pushes his stool back. He waggles his head from side to side. He’d show them how to fall. How to stay down.