by Michael Chin
You last long enough in the wrestling business, you can smell a fight coming.
One night, a dive bar outside Memphis, this tall, broad-shouldered yokel with a crewcut and a sleeve of tattoos was eyeing us. Cracked a mean smile and said something to his buddy.
It was only a matter of time before he came to us at our corner of the bar. We’d taken up three tables by the jukebox, overlooking the pool table.
‘You those rasslers?’
Slim Slam Gavin, the smallest of us, spoke first. Told him we were, asked him what of it?
Crewcut said, ‘I’m a fighter. Any of you tough guys think you can take me?’
A challenge doesn’t mean a fight. Not in these days of camera phones and attorneys. The old guys tell of the old days when the old promoters would tell them never to back away if someone threw down the gauntlet and not to bother coming to the arena next time if they got punked out. All in the name of protecting the business. But nowadays no one wants to deal with a hassle, and must of us ignore a guy like this or shove him hard against a wall to make him come to his senses before things get ugly.
But this night—this night, I could smell a fight.
Because Crewcut had the build of a fighter—not one of those pudgy dudes who practices jiu jitsu a couple times a month and think they’re hot shit, but someone who might actually be somebody some day, and a chip on his shoulder, too.
I don’t know what got into Slim that night, but he was giving six inches, maybe thirty pounds. ‘Why don’t we step outside?’
Crewcut only had his one buddy for backup. We had them outnumbered easy, not that we meant to turn this into a gang fight, but it was good to know if they took a turn, we’d have the man advantage.
Out in the gravel parking lot, there was a single, flickering lamppost for light. No ring bell. No ref to say when to go. No agreement on rules—the worst part because who’s to say when it’s over in a fight like that?
They bobbed for a minute, boxers’ poses. Then Crewcut landed for a side kick square in Slim’s ribs, collapsing him to his knees.
And Slim smiled up at him.
Crewcut punched him square in his cheek. Slim didn’t even have his hands up. The ground and pound was on—Crewcut all over him, punch after punch until I was thinking we ought to intervene, only to hear the strangest sound in the world.
Slim was laughing.
Crewcut eased up for a second as if to confirm it was laughter. That through swelling eyes and a busted nose, Slim was laughing.
Crewcut locked in a rear-naked choke.
The laughter went on. Another ten seconds maybe, before Slim was unconscious. Unconscious and smiling.
Crewcut’s friend tapped his shoulder. Made the universal gesture of it’s over and let’s get out of here.
Crewcut let go of Slim. But he didn’t say anything. No challenge, no trash talk of the rest of us. He stayed focused on Slim’s prone form, facing up at him from the gravel, mouth waxed in that goofy smile, like he’d drunk himself silly and was sleeping it off. Like he was having the greatest dream of his life.
And Crewcut didn’t walk away so much as he backed away, rattled.
We yelled at Slim and shook his shoulders until he woke, then we helped him inside the bar. Got him ice for his face. Back in our corner, I asked him what was with the smile.
‘You think he’ll forget that?’ Slim asked. ‘I’m in his head.’
He was still smiling, and I wondered if his face had been permanently contorted into that expression.
‘No.’ He laughed again. Took a shot of well whiskey. ‘He won the night, but I’ll be waiting in his nightmares.’
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Knudsen Prize for fiction and has published in journals including The Normal School and Bellevue Literary Review. Find him at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.