I worked where I couldn’t afford, smoking cigarettes between shifts in the kitchen washing dishes. I was outside and so was the woman when she complained about the knives being too blunt to cut through the pheasant. It was something among others out of my hands. She took them anyway.
My knuckles were fucked from the speed bag I had rigged from the ceiling in my apartment. I got fucked when I tried to keep up with the neighbors upstairs. They had lasted longer than I was prepared for.
I had been swollen for days.
I held my cigarette between fingertips. She held too long and I got singed and flinched. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said.
I was an amateur.
I wanted to fight a man called Roderick who went by Ron because he had war stories and what did I have? I was all instinct and fists up. “Come on.”
“I don’t know what’s true or not. I’m being honest.” He was talking about a boy found rotted to bones clean as dog tags marked CATHOLIC. The jungle bees had made a hive of him and the soldiers got to thinking about how tough to swallow them John Wayne bars were. “I can’t say for sure the honey was sweet either,” he said. “So if you’re set on hitting me, I say you do me one better.” He took out his combat knife and set it at my feet. “I cerated this myself when I was young as you and full of scared.”
I didn’t know where I was going. I had exhausted my connections, ending up on the six at 4am headed south out of the city. It was me and this other. He lay limp over two seats, eyes swollen shut. “You a fighter?” I said.
If his eyes hadn’t been welled up already, they might have welled up then. “I don’t have nothing else,” he said. He crawled off at the last stop within city limits.
The driver had eyes on me. “Missed my stop,” I said.
“I’d like to go back.”
“If it’s true, you’ll have to wait.”
We pulled into the dark of the maintenance yard where out-of-service rail cars and bus chassis lay scattered like postwar. The driver hosed down the aisles and I watched what I had been sitting in slide out the doors like I had.
* * *
I had in my head wants, and the want I thought simplest and least full of hurt was to hurt. I practiced hurting on the speed bag and the pillows and the mattress I had set up against the wall. I slept on the bowing hardwood floor because I wanted to be a man like I was supposed to.
That was as far as I could take it. That was all I had.
And that’s what I told the man who aimed on mugging me at the bus stop for the six. It could have been a gun in his coat pocket. That could have been it and that’s what I was thinking about: it and what it means. He patted me down. He found the combat knife. “Why didn’t you try to fight back?” he said.
“Forget the knives,” the woman said. “Forget I ever said anything.”
“I was going to let someone know.”
“I want it like it never happened.”
“Isn’t anything I’m ashamed of.”
“Do you drink?”
I drove her Buick through the suburbs and into the sprawl. The flat and straight of the road allowed my hands rest. I counted the cracks in the skin of the swelling like tick marks on the scale of a map.
It was about direction.
She demanded I look at her.
I was feeling at home where I shouldn’t, counting the threads in the bedsheets. I went for my cigarettes like it was an old film. “But you can’t do that here,” she said.
* * *
I was ready to fight when he emerged from behind a bee box in the backyard. “They’re only threats if you are,” he said. “You my wife’s?” He removed the top of the bee box. He held up the shallow chamber. “Smoke keeps them calm.”
Neither of us were protected. They crawled over his fingers and his wrists. They landed on my shoulders and my neck. I stood tough as I could and still as I could. I blew smoke slow through my nostrils. I was the bull.
“We have an aviary too,” he said.
There were no birds in the aviary. It was no more than a small garden, in the middle of which was a wooden replica of an old style rocketship like a bed shaped like a stock car in a young boy’s bedroom.
“There anything you’d miss?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“I do. I could never do it. I’m not saying I’m right. Just that I couldn’t.”
I touched a nylon cord that hung from the fins. “Ignition?”
“I had it planned that way some moons ago.”
Another moon. I climbed into the rocketship with no one knowing I was still around. I spent the night with the nylon cord in my lap. My fists stung. My head buzzed. I’m not saying I had expected lift off. I’m saying, just, that it wasn’t.