The Winner

Published in The Lyndon Review.


Lil and I had been fighting for about two months. Even if one of us did win an individual battle, it proved to be only a cosmetic victory, patching our relationship for a few hours or maybe even a day at a time before the well-stocked armies of our tempers clashed again. In the realm of the purely physical she outmatched me every time, beating her fists against my torso and sinking her nails into my arms while I stood motionless, unwilling to retaliate. My best bet was to make her cry early on, to hurt her with words so quickly that her temper would overload like an exploding boiler and send her running out of the room wailing. When I managed this feat I could always wait to the count of sixty before following her and apologizing, making for a teary-eyed and blissfully quiet session of makeup sex and a nap before the next battle. When I didn’t manage to avoid the attack I had to wait for her to exhaust herself, which could take some time because throwing a punch required remarkably little energy from her. When she left the house in a rage I would take my defeat out on whatever inanimate object presented itself. Through this post-loss ritual I managed to throw a portable phone through the thinly plastered wall and blind myself by crumbling the metal frames of my glasses into a ball and tossing them into the pile of uncollected debris next to the brooms.

The bright side to this fighting is that my family was quite pleased to see me as long as Lil and I were angry with one another. On my days off from work I would wander into my parents’ living room and pass out on their couch, letting them wake me up for occasional meals. But like everything else, these moments of tranquility were too temporary, and the visits would always end with my mother asking me how I got a new scar or bruise. Or, even worse, she would ask me why I was still with Lil, a question to which I had yet to find an answer. Such inquiries inevitably drove me from my home away from home as I shrugged, gave her a hug, and left for the other maelstrom in my life. It was on one of these mile-long walks back to the apartment that I finally snapped.

I had decided to try a new strategy, a preemptive peace-keeping mission. I stopped by the florist and picked out a single white rose for her, the same type of flower that I had given her on our prom night two years ago. In all the time that I had known her, she cried only two types of tears: the happy ones that came infrequently and the angry, bitter ones that I forced from her. Since the former were too rare to be relied upon, I figured that they would catch her off-guard and possibly even establish a truce between the two of us.

So I found myself walking home with a carefully wrapped flower hidden away behind the long tweed flap of my trench coat and singing a song. Frank Sinatra’s “Swinging on a Star” was my favorite because my toneless voice somehow picked up musical talent while tiptoeing over the lyrics. The only other piece of music that I had found to equal that value was “Mack the Knife,” which I had fallen in love with after hearing Louis Armstrong’s black purr of a voice. Unfortunately, I could never remember all of the words to “Mack,” and I figured that a song about ruthless murder probably wasn’t the best tune for the situation anyway. So I stuck to “Swinging on a Star,” letting the song’s hope and opportunity guide my mind.

I made my way through the first two verses of the song before a realization dawned on me and I stopped walking. For the first time in what may well have been an eternity I found myself in an extended good mood. All I had to do was hold this feeling, keep this happy tune on my lips, and I could carry this happiness home and give it to Lil. With that cheery realization, I began moving again, renewing the song and raising the volume of my voice. And when a pair of yokels driving a rust-brown pickup passed me on a back road and called me a fag, I cheerfully flipped them off and continued with my song, thinking nothing of it.

“And all the monkeys aren’t in the zoo, every day you meet quite a few…”

Before I could finish the verse I found myself tossed into the gutter, caught off guard by the offended hillbilly that had gotten out of the truck and charged me, smashing his shoulder into my chest before my wandering mind even made it into the here and now. My assailant chuckled and headed back to the truck, which clanked and growled back to life as his friend began to depart once more having made that brief stop. The aging old vehicle took a while to start up again and was only just rolling into sluggish motion as I stood up, wincing at a sharp pain in my side. Reaching underneath my jacket, I felt the broken stem of my flower, its thorns thrust against my body and its petals crushed.

Within the next moment I came to realize exactly what it must feel like to be the Incredible Hulk. An inexplicable green rage tore through my body and I felt my muscles tense and stretch, my fury growing them to unnatural strength. In my mind I became large and dangerous, and the sound of the car engine and the laughter of my foes died down to a murmur, as though I heard the entire world through the bottom of a swimming pool. I shouted something that didn’t make it past my lips, threw my jacket with its broken contents to the ground, and charged after the truck as it sputtered to life, my body tense with excitement and a chance to finally fight back against something. My eyes must have been red and shooting murder, because they put on panicked faces and sped up. But in another instant the passenger found himself hanging half out of an open window, my hands around his head and my feet dragging on the dirt of the road as the truck pulled me along.

The driver stopped the truck again and the world devolved into fists and sweat from there. A punch registered against my skull and I fell away out of habit rather than out of pain. My original attacker sputtered and stepped out of the truck as I regained my feet. One of them said something that fell mute against my clouded mind. Through my uncorrected eyes they were faceless monsters, their visages blurred and mutated by myopia. I delighted in this fact and gave a toothy grin as the words to “Mack the Knife” flooded back into my brain.

The shark has such teeth, dear…

I grinned, showing my pearly whites just before I leapt onto one of them, my only desire being to choke the life out of my enemy. The other one pounded his fists against me, pummeling the back of my head with blows that I wouldn’t feel for days.

I eventually managed to get a good grip on my victim’s throat and I watched his face start to pale. When I was a kid, my brothers and I had figured out an order to the changing colors of your face if you held your breath long enough. First it was red, then white, then purple. I wanted to see what color came next.

Then the world went black for a second again and my life corrected itself. My opponent’s driver had managed to grab my shoulders and throw me backwards, resetting my rage and causing me to forget what had brought me to that point. I picked myself up, my hip suddenly hurting from the earlier impact. The blurry-faced monster that I had been fighting with placed a hand on my shoulder, his face slowly returning to its normal color.

“Hey, relax man,” he gasped. When he fully regained his breath, he gave me a strange sort of grin. “You’re a wiry son of a bitch.”

“What?” My ears had begun hearing again, and their sudden return came as a slight shock to my mind.

“No hard feelings, okay?”

“Yeah, no hard feelings. Where’s my jacket?”

“Here you go,” my foe’s accomplice handed me the coat and I shrugged it back on, feeling like myself again.

“Yeah, thanks.” I wondered if I should punch him once for good measure, but he shook my hand instead and they were off. I got most of the way home before my hip started really bothering me and I began to limp.

It was almost twilight when I finally staggered up splintered gray stairs and found Lil sitting on the couch facing our front door, her face crossed into a frown. The debris that served as our living room was a fallen city of pizza boxes and unwashed dishes, fitting her disarrayed expression perfectly.

“You were supposed to look at a new TV,” she said. Pounds of excess flesh dangled off of her arm as she gestured over to our television, which had been the latest victim of one of my defeats. I had hit it with an iron shovel that had inexplicably found its way into our broom closet, and the monitor had just exploded outward, leaving glass scattered everywhere. I didn’t know that TV screens did that. Remembering my shock I chuckled, momentarily forgetting where I was.

“You think this is funny?!” Her shriek cut across my eardrums with the precision of a razor blade and she raised an angry fist. To my surprise, it didn’t land because someone grabbed it. She let out a small squeal of pain as the hand squeezed the bones in her hand together, trembling in the effort. Then I let go, my jaw slack as I realized that it was my hand.

She started crying those bitter tears that I had wanted to avoid.

“I’d better go,” I said, my voice low and unusually solemn as I turned toward the door. I needed something else. I needed to find a fight I could win without actually fighting.

With painstaking effort I closed the door gently behind me and started down the porch, wondering where I was going to go. Reaching into my jacket I removed the remains of the obliterated rose and sighed, realizing that I had missed a chance at real victory.

Image: Fist, by George Hodan

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