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The Fighter

By Michael Ripley

Joe Jackson was a fighter—not the kind people paid to fight, not even the type who found himself in situations he had to fight his way out of—Joe wanted to fight. He had no problem hurting another man and didn’t mind his own pain if it came fair and square. The night I first saw him, he had just met his match, and his knowing that I’d seen him lose did give me an edge in our relationship.

“Who’s the redhead across the way?” I could hear him ask his mate as he looked at me through eyes half-closed by blows he hadn’t managed to block. He spit blood on the floor and took a rolling swig of rye. He stood and wobbled a bit, while looking me over again.

For a moment I was afraid he would come my way, bloody and dripping with sweat, not concerned about his appearance or manners, just thirsty for fresh Irish pink, but he fell back down onto the barstool. It seemed clear he wasn’t moving anytime soon, so I got up and walked over to him.

“Suppose the other guy looks a whole lot worse.” I said

“Other guy was born looking worse,” he answered quickly, but I saw the wince in his beaten eyes. 

“So you buying a lady a drink?” I asked.

“I’ll buy a lady a bottle if she’ll help me get outta this place.”

"Where is it you’re in such a hurry to get to?”

“Any place that reminds me of winning,” he said, and with that I helped him up.

We walked with his arm thrown around my neck. He yelled for a bottle of Shanty as we passed the bartender and tossed a fistful of silver on the bar

“I get to carry that too?” I asked.

“Stop your complaining or you’ll be replaced before you even know old Joe.”

“That’s you name, then? Joe?” I asked.

“Yeah, we’re twins,” he said.

“Well, I’m Sarah,” I told him, even though my name is Ann, and I carried Joe Jackson, along with myself and a fine bottle of Shanty into the street, away from the saloon where the man was a barroom loser, filled with self-pity, and a head full of disgrace.

We spent the night at his place, where I tended to his wounds and his pride, while listening to his music and drinking his whiskey. Like a nosey old lady, I looked around a bit while he slept, opening cabinets and cupboards, checking his closets and drawers. He kept a tidy place for a bar-fighting man, not the image he projected. Paintings on the walls appeared to be real, textured oils showing scenes of far away places, boats tied to docks, always views of water. I came to believe he learned to fight while a sailor in one of these locales, although he never spoke of those days. My cheat of a father had been a sailor too.

Joe Jackson seemed like a good man during those first hours that I knew him, and it was while looking at those pictures that I decided where this thing was heading. I left as the sun made its first entrance through the Venetian blinds that Joe had mounted to cover every window in his place. I decided not to wake him up or to leave a note; a man like that would find me again or I would find him.

A couple of weeks later I saw him at another run-down tavern on the edge of town, one of those places in an old building with a wooden front door painted bright green and a small square window mounted high and turned so it looked like a diamond. Inside the wooden plank floor creaked as I walked toward the bar and I imagined the cellar below where the beer kegs would sit amongst the filth and rats. A bartender took me down below a floor like this once where he had to go ten times a night to tap a new keg with the long hose that fed the beer up to the lever mounted behind the bar.

Joe was sprawled on that worn plank floor, face up, eyes closed, obviously knocked cold. The man who did it, tonight’s apparent winner, stood over him looking down, waiting for a sign of life. Joe finally turned his head just a little to the left and the man standing over him laughed.

“Well, I didn’t kill him, anyway. Get him out of here and get me a drink.”

I went to Joe and slapped his battered face a little to wake him up.

“Joe, you remember me?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Hi Mom,” he said.

“Oh, I look like your mother, do I? Come on, let’s get you up and out of here before you get any ideas about fighting again.”

I helped Joe to his feet and led him to the door. I could see flashing lights through that diamond window and pushed him through just as a cop walked up the two steps at the entrance.

“Hang on you two,” he said.

“The bloke’s in there you want,” I told him. “He’s a bad ass. Look out for him.”

With that the cop let us pass and I got Joe to my car.

“Where you taking me?” Joe asked.

“Somewhere away from here. Where you want to go?”

“That was the last place,” he said. 

“What you mean by the last place?” 

“I don’t go where I’m a loser, never go back. This town’s out of places.”

“I’ll take you to my place,” I offered. “You’ll be a winner there for sure.” 

“I can’t win anywhere since then,” he said, using that pitiful voice I’d heard the first time we met. 

“Since when, Joe?” I asked.  

“Since that night with you.”  

“You hadn’t won that night either, if you remember right.” I pulled onto the highway and drove back toward town, heading to my place. 

 “That’s the night it started,” he mumbled and fell over, putting his head first on my shoulder, then dropping down to my lap. “You’re the problem, you know. You’ve got me thinking, and I’m not supposed to be doing that.”  

“What? Thinking? You’re not supposed to think?”  

“That’s right. I’m a fighter, not a lover, not a dreamer, and mostly not a thinker.”  

“Well, I guess I’ll give you that much. You are a bit simple.”  

“There, you see? You complicated things,” he said stumbling on complicated, but trying his best to emphasize his point.  

“Go to sleep, Joe.” 

“Where you taking me?”  

“I told you. We’re going to my place.”  

Joe slept the rest of the way, finally snapping awake as I hit the pitted gravel driveway and bumped the car to a stop beside the house. I pushed him upright and went around to his door, catching him just in time as he slid to the ground trying to get out by himself. 

“Come on fightin’ man,” I said as I helped him to his feet. With his arm around my shoulder again, we went inside and I plopped him on the couch.  

“Where you going?” he asked.  

“You just wait right there. I’m getting stuff to clean you up again.”  

“I don’t need nobody taking care of me,” he said as he stood to his feet, still wobbling on shaky legs. “Who you think you are?”  

“Well, a while ago you thought I was your mom. Now that’s exactly how I’m starting to feel. Maybe I’m your mom.”  

Joe swung and hit me along my right ear, knocking me to the ground, leaving me looking up at his staggering body as he stood over me speaking words I couldn’t hear through the ringing sounds drowning everything else out. I back-peddled, pushing fast with my heels to get away from him.  

“You started all this,” I finally made out what he was getting at. “You’re the cause of all my trouble.” He started toward the door.  

“Where you going, now,” I teased him. “You’ve got no place to go, loser.”

I slid across the floor until I was sitting by my closet. I reached inside, behind the old vacuum cleaner, and found what I was looking for. 

“Guess I could stay and beat the shit out of you some more,” Joe said. 

“Guess you could,” I said. “You’re a winner here, Joe. Nowhere else to go.”

I put my hands on the gun I’d taken from the dresser in Joe’s bedroom that night a couple weeks ago. 

“Nah, I’m not wasting my time around here,” he said as he reached the door.  

“Get back here, Joe. I’m not done with you yet,” I yelled as loud as I could.  

He turned back to look at me and by the time he figured out what I was up to, I had pulled off two quick shots, both catching him in the chest. He fell and sat back against my front door. His eyes showed his surprise, but he couldn’t talk. He just slowly slid down until he lay on the floor with only his head propped, forcing his chin to his collarbone, eyes still open, staring straight ahead, staring at me.

You see, I’m a fighter, Joe,” I said as I rose from the floor. “Not the type that needs to be provoked, but it never hurts. I don’t mind that you hit me, bastard. I can take the pain. Just so long as it’s fair and square.”

 

Michael Ripley is a writer living in Indiana.  His work can be found in The Writer's Post Journal, Nth Degree Magazine, Opinions Magazine, Edifice Wrecked, Flesh from Ashes, the anthologies of LBF Books: Holiday Choir and Emerging Voices and the forthcoming DreamRail Stories.  Look for Dreamrail on tracks near your front door.


Photo "Self Reflect" courtesy of Lucretious.

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