Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

The Distance

by Chrys Darkwater

I am light, fire, burning, not only taking up the space inside my body but all the area around me, a symphony in my blood, woodwinds and brass and percussion pressed between muscle and bone, trying to escape, aching for crescendo, pushing out through the short hairs that rise out of my skin, tiny fingers of flame.

I throw slow punches in the air. Muscle-memory guides them, past thought, past memories, leads me to where I have to go.

Scheduled for twelve rounds, the Book lays odds the fight will be over in under six. Of course, I’m not expected to win, not expected to go the distance.

My girlfriend used to laugh whenever I talked about going the distance. She’d laugh, saying that she should be so lucky and I’d throw her over my shoulder while she squealed, kicking her legs weakly, the silky burn of her hair against my back electric. I can still feel her smile against my skin, her words warm on my cheek. Back then, me and my baby, we could always go the distance.

Anything not right in front of me goes blurry, reduced to shapes, outlines. Sound becomes muffled like I’m underwater, voices like whale songs, undulating and distant.

He’s knocked out everyone who’s stepped in the ring with him, twenty-six straight, most in the first round. Good pop in both fists. Dynamite they call him.

I think of fighters who died in the ring. I never heard of anyone ever actually dying in the ring itself; they died from what happened in the ring. They died, later, hooked up to tubes and machines with nurses and doctors and well wishers, in rooms full of prayers and flowers, so many eyes squeezed shut against the inevitable. Semantics never changed the ending.

I think about Beethaeven Scottland, Jimmy Garcia, Johnny Owen. Each of them twenty-four when their luck ran out. My blood thickens as the twisted strings of my DNA tangle and knot, snaking through me. My skin is too tight, hot, burning, and my vision blurs and I have to close my eyes, tell myself to breathe, to force air into my lungs and to hold it tight before letting it out slowly, rising from the soles of my feet. I think about Cleveland Denny, Robert Wanglia, Willie Classen.

When I close my eyes I can still feel my daughter’s kisses on my skin, can still smell the sweet sticky candy lip gloss on my lips, on both cheeks, on my forehead as she wished me luck, her eyes bright as new quarters, shiny like that. She always told me to be careful, her voice slow and deliberate, sounding the way I sounded when I told her to look both ways before crossing the street. Her kisses echo through me, through the miles and years apart, bouncing between skin and bone. Closing my eyes erases all the years.

I think of the distance.

Twelve rounds.

My fists paw the air.

My bones remember fights where I had to go past the point where there was nothing left, where thoughts and memories blurred together, indistinguishable, like a fracture that healed wrong, a faultline of fused bone. What happened or what I thought happened or what I wished happened, all smashed together to where I’m not sure of anything. But my bones remember every punch, what was given and what was taken away.

My little girl told me to stop fighting. Her mother, a woman I was smart enough to ask to marry me, a woman smart enough to say no, never asked me directly. She’d slip it in, clean, like throwing a punch coming out of a weave, telling me to think of her, our little girl, our future.

I wonder what will happen the day when I dig down deep and find nothing. I tell myself that today isn’t that day, but I don’t know if that’s a lie.

My cut-man slips his hands into the mitts and holds them up in front of him. His lips move around words that I don’t hear, but I understand what he is asking.

My fists pop into the mitts, punches cracking like handfuls of thunder.

The familiar tension that runs between muscle and bone slowly melts until I am glowing, light. I’m lightning, crackling around the edges, filling the space around me.

My trainer stands behind me and to the side, watching. His eyes on me, heavy, I feel when he nods approvingly, a small dip of the head that matches the timing of my punches.

The sweat is coming good and thick now, the way it’s supposed to. Warm and thick as blood.

My cut-man claps the mitts together, nods, a whisper of a smile on his face, as he slips his hands free and turns towards the door.

I follow him out, down the hall, down through the dark tunnel that opens up to a sea of dark faces. Below them, in front of me, the ring glows. The blue of the canvas is the blue promise of Caribbean seas and cloudless skies, the blue the color of dreams.

A spotlight brushes over us as we make our way towards the ring. Music plays but I can’t make out what song it is. Bass and drum push against my skin. I feel the music more than I hear it.

People lean over the railings, yelling, faces reduced to shadows. Compliments or insults, I can’t tell. Maybe they yell just to yell, to hear their own voices, to feel the words swell up from inside them like a wave threatening to swallow the shore.

From behind, my trainer keeps his hands on me, whispers words of magic warm against my skin.

I walk, floating, my feet touching the ground solidly and yet not at all. I am hollowed out and yet full of the world. Empty and full, heavy and weightless, I am a contradiction on fire as I float above the ground even as I sink down deep, deeper, deepest, roots tangling all the way to the center of the world.