Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Boys

THE BOYS, coauthored by brothers Ron Howard and Clint Howard, is a great coming-of-age memoir about growing up and trying to survive in the grueling world of show business. I’ve always enjoyed both brothers’ work, so picking up this book was a no-brainer for me. Overall, it was a heart-warming read that I would recommend to anyone.

 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

My Brother's Flag

This is an excerpt from the short story, "My Brother's Flag," which can be found in the collection "Where the Gravel Lane Ends."

 

A slight breeze pushed against the surface of the lake as JW sat in a chair along the bank with pole in hand. A walking stick lay on the ground beside him. He no longer needed the crutches. Reflecting the sun, the water rippled out from small coves like tiny rolling diamonds. The waves traveled across and interrupted the stillness of JW’s line and his red and white bobber. The day had been a pleasant one for JW. Forty-five minutes had passed and he hadn’t had a single bite, but he still enjoyed the weather and the company of a cardinal cheeping over in a pine tree. He was thankful to be right where he was.

Across the yard, up toward the house, Jake was shooting baskets in the driveway. He rebounded a shot, dribbled out, squared-up, and released. The ball came down and sank the bottom of the net. JW watched him take a few more shots. He missed one then made two in a row. He had nice form, he thought. If he stayed with it, he’d be a decent player by the time he entered high school.

JW turned his attention back to fishing. The water had stopped rippling and the bobber remained undisturbed as ever. He no longer heard the cardinal and as he thought of looking over to the pine tree his bobber bounced twice then dropped out of sight. He yanked the pole and set the hook. He held on tight and cranked the reel. The pole bent double as the fish on the other end dived toward the bottom of the lake.

From where he stood, Jake watched the action unfold. He saw JW crank the reel a few more times. The pole flexed in and out. The fish was giving a good fight. Without thinking, he dropped the ball on the grass and headed toward the lake. By the time he got down there JW was reeling the fish out of the water.

“That’s a good looking fish,” said Jake.

“Thanks” said JW. He wrenched the hook from its mouth. By the bottom lip, he held the fish up to the sunlight. Gills opened and closed. “What do you think? Four pounds? Maybe five?”

Jake studied the fish. “I’d say closer to three.”

JW nodded and grinned. “You want to toss it back?”

“Nah, go ahead.”

JW shrugged then tossed the bass back into the water. The fish splashed and swam away. From an old peanut can, JW plucked another worm and rebaited his hook. With a sidearm swoop, he cast the line back out into the water. “You should grab a rod and reel from the barn and join me. It’s a nice day.”

Jake turned away, looked to his ball lying in the grass, and then turned back. “I’ll probably go shoot some more ball.”

“Don’t you like to fish?”

“I don’t come down here much anymore.”

“I see.” JW thought on the matter. He didn’t want to be pushy, but he wasn’t giving up either. “You don’t have to fish, but you’re still welcome to join me.”

As always, the water gave Jake a bad feeling, but with reluctance, he sat beside his grandfather. Together, they stared across the water. Neither one was saying anything at all. A cloud came over and blocked the sunshine. More silent moments passed and JW finally said, “I know how you feel, Jake.”

The words shook Jake from his foggy thoughts. “What do you mean?”

“You may not know this, but I once had an older sister.”

“You did? What happened to her?”

“When she was about your age she was riding her bike to the grocery store. It was a beautiful day, just like today, when a man driving a car dropped his cigarette in the floorboard. He went to reaching for it and when he popped back up, the car had drifted onto the sidewalk and struck my sister Joanne. She died later that afternoon in the hospital. I miss her still to this day.”

Jake imagined the incident. He knew that grief. The never-ending heartache that the loss of a brother or sister creates. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. His family had always been good people. So why did this have to happen? Why did Frankie have to die?

“I don’t understand any of it,” said Jake.

JW knew his grandson’s meaning. “I’m not sure there’s an answer, son. But even though we can’t see them anymore, they’re still with us. I still feel my sister with me every day. I keep her right here.” JW tapped two fingers on his heart. “We’ll never forget them, Jake.”

“I know I could never forget Frankie.”

The cardinal tweeted in the pine tree. They both turned to watch.

“He’ll always be with you,” said JW. “Where ever you go, he’ll be there. Never forget that.”

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Muscatatuck




My earliest memory of the Muscatatuck River was from around the age of seven. Though, the river itself was never the center of this memory. The old aluminum boat my dad had bought, and pulling that monster catfish from Muscatatuck’s waterways are what I remember most. For a week, my dad and Uncle Merle had talked of the boat and catching fish, which sent my young, inquisitive mind abound. I too wanted to land a huge fish for myself. They, my dad and uncle, had planned our excursion, and I was ready. To a boy of seven, nothing else compared to going on a fishing trip with my two heroes.
I remember Uncle Merle helping my dad lift the boat from the bed of the truck and carrying it to the river’s bank. The boat was old and dented and had a few peeling stickers on the side, but to me, it was magical. I had never been on a boat before that day.
They pushed the vessel half into the water leaving half of it on the bank. My dad instructed me to climb aboard and sit in the back. Uncle Merle climbed in behind me and sat in the middle, where the wooden oars were mounted on either side. My dad shoved off, stepped on, and floated us out into the middle of the gentle downstream current. Appearing to be a natural navigator, Uncle Merle guided the vessel. Even at my tender age, I noticed how well the two brothers worked together.
The sun blazed that morning and its rays reflected brightly off the water. Working the oars, Uncle Merle churned the water, and I shifted in my seat to watch as we floated down the river. I saw a variety of snapping turtles, all different sizes, scooting from fallen logs and sliding into the water as we drifted past. I saw a muskrat surface and dive back under the murky river. A fascination aroused in me like no other, and this exciting adventure had only begun.
Inside the boat, we had fishing rods, a stringer to hold our catch, and a Tupperware bowl full of stink bait, mixed and prepared by my dad. He’d used this concoction for years, and continued to do so up until he died.
I heard Uncle Merle pull the oars once again, splashing the water. Impatiently, I asked, “How far are we going?”
“Downstream a ways,” said Uncle Merle. “Around the bend to the cave. That’s where your dad and I usually go. We’ve always have decent luck at the cave.”
I’d heard of the cave on a few occasions; nothing in detail though, just a mention here or there about catching a big catfish at the ole cave. I too wanted to catch a big one. I’d never caught a fish that was worthy of any bragging rights. Even at the age of seven, I’d landed some decent crappie and bluegill, a nice large-mouth bass or two, but never a gigantic catfish.
The oars splashed again. Excited, I watched as we passed the bend in the river. And then, a new world opened up to me. There, the river tunneled through a section of trees that grew from both sides of the bank, emerging, and fusing their limbs and leaves together high above us and the water. I watched in wonderment as the shadowy display of Mother Nature swallowed up the boat, engulfing us, my dad, uncle, and me.
My anticipation got the better of me, and I turned to ask, “We almost there?”
“Not much further,” said my dad, who had removed the lid from the Tupperware bowl. He stirred and smashed the bait with his hand. I’d seen him use this technique in the past. He said it was to reactivate the ‘stink’ which attracted the catfish. I wasn’t sure if this was true or some story adults like to throw at children from time to time. To me, the blended mush, whether stirred or not, smelled horribly. He scraped the bits of bait from his hand back into the bowl and resealed it with the lid. He then dropped his hand over the side of the boat and into the water to give it a quick washing.
With the sun beating down, I began to sweat through the Superman t-shirt I was wearing. I remember that shirt well. Clean or dirty, and being that the shirt was my favorite, I donned it regularly for a couple years, until my stomach began poking out the bottom.
We floated along and I watched and grew more excited, knowing we were getting closer to the cave and our fishing destination. We broke free of the tunnel of trees and the sun brightened the water again. The banks grew steep and towering, as if the river had naturally carved through this high rolling section of the countryside. I watched with anticipation, becoming enthralled with each splash of the oar. Breaking past a row of bushes, I saw it. The cave was everything I’d expected it would be. The entrance was big, dark, and a little scary. I’d never seen a real cave before, only in photographs, and on television.
“Any animals live in there?” I asked as we stepped out of the boat.
“There might be,” said my dad. “Nothing to worry about. Maybe a bear or a mountain lion.” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or trying to use that grown-up humor on me again. I kept my guard, eyeing the cave with a bit of fear and suspicion.
We gathered our equipment from the boat and not long after, we cast our rods into the river, waiting for the arrival of the big catfish, enticed by the glorious stink bait fixed to our hooks. Patiently, I waited for the next few minutes before growing weary and bored. I fiddled in the dirt with a stick, drawing caricatures I created from my mind. I fashioned myself as a decent artist, even at my young age.
We sat on the bank with no action to behold. Not a bite or nibble.
“I’m bored,” I said as I drew the bill on Daffy Duck’s head. “Where are the fish?”
Slowly, with eyes fixed on the water, my dad turned the crank on his reel. He tightened the line making it more sensitive to any strike at the stink bait.
“Got to be patient, buddy,” he said. “It’s called fishing, not catching.”
I heard him use that ‘fishing, not catching’ line many times throughout my life, but I think then was the first time. It was a phrase I too would use on my sons later when they were impatient little rascals, as I had been on that day so long ago.
“They’re down there right now,” said Uncle Merle. “On the bottom. You can bet on it.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Wait and see,” was the only answer I got.
The sun was hotter than before and my Superman shirt had soaked through entirely with sweat, front and back. I was on the verge of giving up. There were no fish in here. Their big fish stories were made up. I was certain of it. I was ready to go home.
Then, when my hopes were all but lost, my dad yanked his fishing rod. With a clean jerk, he set the hook and reeled steadily, looking very much in control. The fish dove to the bottom and his rod bent nearly in double. The excitement was too much to bear so I stood.
My dad kept the reel at the center of his chest, as his thick forearms and wrists maneuvered the fish with ease. The mighty beast in the water was no match for my dad’s brute strength. Nobody was, as far as I was concerned. Not even Uncle Merle. My dad toyed with the fish, letting it tire out, and then cranked the reel a few times more.
I couldn’t take it. I was nearly dancing where I stood. I said, “Can I try? Can I reel it in? Let me try!”
The rod straightened as the fish attempted to swim to its freedom yet again.
“Feels like a big one,” said my dad. “Sure you can do it?”
“I can do it. I know I can.” I was wearing my Superman shirt. I felt I could do anything.
My dad handed me the rod and I instantly felt the commanding power of the fish on the other end. I gripped the fishing rod as tight as I could with both hands and stood my ground. Right away, I thought I’d made a big mistake by taking over the duty of trying to land this whopper.
“Hold on tight!” said my dad. “Don’t let go!”
“I won’t,” I said as the fish pulled and inched me closer to the water’s edge.
“Stay with it!” said Uncle Merle.
The sweat on my hands hindered my grip. I grasped above the reel and positioned the handle in the center of my stomach for better leverage, as my dad had taught me, but that didn’t help. When I could, I gave a few cranks. The opposing strength was unlike any I’d ever experienced before. I mean, I’d been in a few fights on the playground, wrestling schoolyard bullies twice my size and getting the better of them on most occasions, but I’d yet to face this type of power. Looking back, I knew this force came from desperate animal instincts to live and survive another day.
As I said, I’d never caught a fish worthy of any praise, and that’s what I sought. That’s all that mattered to me—catching and landing this fish so I could tell the story for years to come of how it nearly dragged me into the great Muscatatuck River, as I am telling it now.
We fought, the fish and I, each of us displaying our unyielding pride to the other. Neither combatant wanted to give. The fish took a dive and I pulled the handle a little harder into my stomach. Feeling my resistance, the fish relaxed and I cranked the reel again. The fight seemed all but out of him. I saw the white on his underbelly as he surfaced a few seconds later. It was a catfish! A big one!
“There it is,” said my dad. “Looks like a dandy.”
“He sure is a keeper, if I’ve ever seen one,” said Uncle Merle.
I felt my pride swelling, but I still had yet to land this rascal—and that was the most important task. I cranked the reel but the beast wasn’t giving up so easily. There was more fight in him yet. He bolted toward the bottom of the river and I lunged forward, creeping closer to the water’s edge.
“Hold on, son!” cheered my dad.
My hands slipped and my strength gave as the rod flexed double again. The fish was relentless in its quest to escape. I gripped tighter and gathered my will, courage, and all my dwindling vigor to make one final go at landing this powerhouse.
The handle sank deeper into my stomach. I gave a couple strenuous turns on the reel and heaved with all I had. When I felt I’d no more to give and was about to succumb to defeat, the beast surfaced again. This time Uncle Merle stood by holding the dip net.
“Way to go, Jimmy!” he said. “You did it!” He scooped it out of the water and pulled it from the net. I’d done it. I’d landed the beast!
I looked at it. The catfish was the length of my arm and wet and glistening. Its gills heaved in and out, just the same as my own chest. We were two exhausted warriors who, in my eyes and heart, had just fought one courageous and noble battle. There was praise to give for both sides.
Uncle Merle wrenched the hook from its mouth. “You want to hold it before I put it on the stringer?”
I wanted to but my arms felt as heavy and useless as two socks filled with sand.
“I don’t think I can right now,” I said. “Maybe later.”
Uncle Merle shrugged and fetched the stringer from the boat. He fed the pointed, metal tip through the gills, out the mouth, and then through the metal ring attached to the opposite end of the stringer. He pulled the string tight, and at the edge of the water, he tossed the beast in and lashed the stringer around the base of a tree.
“You caught a fine catfish,” said my dad. “That’s one to be proud of.” I was, and I told him so.
We sat on the bank a while longer and the excitement among the three of us had ceased. I resumed creating my caricatures in the dirt with my stick. On occasion, my thoughts skipped back to landing the fish. It was one of the proudest moments of my life at the time.
Then something came over me. I’m not sure why, but I felt despair. I reflected: Was I the one who really landed the beast? Was I the one who really caught him? I wasn’t, and I knew it. My dad had hooked the catfish. He was the one who’d exhausted most of the fight out of him before handing over the rod. What if the fish and I had started on even ground? What if it was I who attempted to hook him, missed, and failed altogether? These thoughts riled me. This wasn’t a catch I could brag about to my friends. This wasn’t a fish I could call my own. I turned to my dad.
“Are we going to keep it? Doesn’t seem fair we keep just that one.”
“Depends on if we catch any more,” he answered.
“We should turn him back. He deserves to live.”
Neither my dad nor Uncle Merle said a word. Instead, they slowly cranked their reels, tightening their lines as before.
I drew in the dirt and heard my catfish splashing and rolling over and over. The rascal was at it again. Still fighting like a true warrior to the very end. He had heart, that fish.
Uncle Merle hopped up and marched to where he’d lashed the stringer. To my surprise, he yanked the fish from the water, and clinging to its belly was a snapping turtle. It wasn’t a big turtle, not as big as the ones I’d seen on the way in scooting from logs. I went over to investigate and noticed three or four chunks missing from my fish, a couple at the tail and one or two on its backside.
Uncle Merle shook the turtle from my fish and it landed into the water and dove under. And even though the catfish was injured, it showed no signs of slowing down. It pitched and flopped as before. Uncle Merle picked a different location and lashed the stringer around the base of another tree.
I felt sorry for my fish. How could he swim away if the turtle returned?
“Maybe you should let him go,” I said again. “I don’t really want him. He fought a good fight. He should be turned loose. What do ya say?”
“We’ll wait a little longer,” said my dad. “They might start biting soon. No sense of turning it back yet. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
I dropped my drawing stick and concentrated on the tip of my rod. If I were to catch a fish, I needed to do it myself and not with the help of my dad. That’s the way it had to be.
The wind blew and the temperature finally cooled. I watched the tip of my rod. It didn’t move. In fact, it didn’t move for several minutes, which, to any boy of seven, seemed like hours. This wasn’t a great place to fish at all, I thought. One measly fish was all the action any of us had seen. Where were all these fish I’d heard so much about? Where were these giants? These monsters?
“Maybe we should go home,” I said. “I don’t think there are any more fish here.”
“Give it time, Jimmy,” said Uncle Merle. “They’ll start biting soon. We got here a little early. Just you wait and see.”
But I was tired of waiting. I wanted to see some action.
The wind blew harder and thunder rumbled in the distance. We sat there for some time without a bite or any trace of a nibble. I went back to drawing in the dirt, but even that was boring me now. I gave my stick a fling and that’s when I heard my catfish rolling and tossing in the water again. This time, the splashes were louder and higher.
“Those dang turtles!” Uncle Merle said, and marched down to the water.
He pulled the stringer from the river. No turtles hung from my fish, but I saw the damage they’d left behind. Half of the tail chewed away, another chunk from its side ripped clean, and a fresh set of bites marks were on its back. This fish didn’t deserve this. It continued to pitch and flop, wanting to escape back to the depths of the river, back to the normal life it once knew.
Uncle Merle tossed it back out into the water.
“Shouldn’t you tie it up somewhere else?” I said. “How about we let it go. I don’t want it anymore. Please.”
“Don’t give up so easily, son,” said my dad.
But I wasn’t giving up, really. Letting the fish go had nothing to do with giving up. This fish, in my eyes, deserved to be free. It had proven itself worthy many times over already. What I couldn’t understand is why my dad and Uncle Merle failed to see and feel the same as I did.
The thunder rolled in and the wind whipped through the trees, swaying even the largest branches with ease. The rain fell and pelted the boat, the river water, and us.
My dad and Uncle Merle reeled in their lines, and I did the same. They scrambled to pull the boat further onto the bank, and we retreated into the cave. Hypnotized, I watched from the cave’s entrance as the raindrops appeared to bounce off the river. The thunder belched again, causing me to jump a little. The storm erased my notion of any fierce animals that might be lurking inside the cave.
The rain flushed down from the sky creating a sloppy, muddy mess along the bank. I imagined the water climbing high enough that it rushed into the cave and dragged us back to the river where a passel of snapping turtles awaited to eat us. From there, our remains would wash downstream, out into the ocean. Our friends and family would never see us again.
Though, my worries ceased when the thunder and rain stopped unexpectedly.
“That didn’t last long,” my dad said.
“It’s gonna be a scorcher now,” Uncle Merle added, poking his head outside the cave.
The sun projected through the trees, and the heat radiated from the ground, trapping us in a swath of humidity. Soaked from the rain, my Superman t-shirt cooled my back and chest.
Our fishing trip was over and the time had come to pack up and leave. I was beyond ready to go. I was overjoyed by the thought of escaping this mud pit, but most importantly by knowing I was about to release my fish. It deserved its freedom of this place. In fact, we both did.
I told my dad I was going to release my fish and he agreed I could. Relieved, I scooted down the bank to set it free. I twisted the stringer around my hand and hoisted the fish from the water only to discover a creature I no longer recognized. Half its body gone. Head chewed to the skull. A skeleton with bits of flesh at the rear. My heart shattered. I was too late.
“Those turtles did a number on it,” said Uncle Merle.
My dad must have seen the sadness on my face. “Cheer up, son. We’ll come back another day. Then you can catch all the catfish you want.”
“Or turtles,” Uncle Merle added.
I removed my fish from the stringer. Instead of throwing it into the water for the turtles to finish, I dug a hole in the mud, buried it, and covered it with a few leaves and twigs. I felt this was the respectful thing to do. A true warrior needed a proper send-off, and I wanted to make sure that he got his.
As we loaded in the boat and floated away from the cave, I remember pondering on what had occurred. This fish and I had fought a good fight, and it nearly defeated me. It had guts and honor, and I was certain that there wasn’t another one in the great Muscatatuck River like it.
As time passed, and as I became older, I did indeed catch many more catfish. Some exhibited spunk and charisma, but none were as memorable as the fish I’d caught at the ole cave when I was seven years old.
~~~
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please consider heading over to the Tip Jar and tossing in a few coins. It would be much appreciated. Thanks again.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Forsaken Land is Live



Forsaken Land: Selected Stories is now live. 
So why release this book? 
There was a lot of crossover in the two previous books--characters, setting--so I wanted to bring those stories together. I chose seven stories - which I feel are the best - from Hard Luck and seven from Chicken Liver Blues, and one new story, Beach Life, which was originally published in Cowboy Jamboree Magazine. Fifteen in all. The best of two books rolled into one, in my opinion.
So, if you're new to my work, or you didn't read the two previous collections, then may I suggest picking up a copy of Forsaken Land

From the back cover:
FORSAKEN LAND brings in fifteen selected stories by Jeremy Perry from his books Hard Luck, Chicken Liver Blues, and other online publications. In this collection, you’ll dive headfirst into the underbelly of a fringe society in rural America that often forces many to live by their own rules. These are people who live in an environment saturated with drugs, crime, and other evils that destroy lives every day. This culture believes you need to get what you can, while you can, before the forsaken land comes calling. These are stories of crime, rural noir, and hillbilly gothic. 

Selected stories:
King of the County
The Way of the Culture
The Fight
Cranked
Looking for Action
Your Bird My Cat
Blaze of Glory
Chicken Liver Blues
Twenty Dollars
Jubal Grimes
Money
Beach Life
Forsaken Land
The Monsters
One Step Closer to Heaven



Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Wishing Lantern Finds a Home




Recently, my story “The Wishing Lantern” found a home at Hello America, a literary magazine that publishes work by rural and small-town authors.
The story itself originated from a writing prompt from another online magazine a few years back. I preened and edited the story and performed some small re-writes off and on over the last couple of years. After receiving a dozen or so rejections, it finally landed in the virtual pages of Hello America, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
If you’re a rural or small-town author, send your work to Adam Gnade, who runs Hello America, and who’s always ready to hear new voices from the rural writing community.
If you’d like, you can read my story here.
Thanks for stopping by.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Kindle Unlimited and Short Stories

For independent writers and publishers of short stories, I believe Kindle Unlimited is a feasible platform on which to release your work. And let me immediately say I'm talking about single short stories.
For those who don't know, Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon program which monthly subscribers can read as much as they want as long as the stories and books are in the program.
It's no secret that short story singles are a hard sell when full-length works are in and around the same price. However, with KU, the playing field seems evened up a bit. Readers may feel less threatened, monetarily, when they've already paid their monthly KU subscription and come across a short story that sounds inviting.
And from a writing and publishing standpoint, an entertaining short story is a great way to spread the word about a writer's storytelling ability and maybe influence readers to seek out the writer's other works.
If you're writing short stories, make sure they are the best stories you can write, get them proofread by someone in the writing and publishing business, and try publishing on Kindle Unlimited. It's worth a shot.
 

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Fight

The crowd was enormous and everyone who was anyone knew that it would be. This was what everyone was talking about, this fight. The magnitude of methheads, potheads, general dopers, rednecks, conjoining, so to speak, in this small, etched away piece of backwoods used to wreck faces and ribs and to party down, was unlike any assembly I’d ever seen before, including prison.
I didn’t personally know either fighter, but I felt a deep connection within me, a tie that only a person who had been mauled, bitten, chewed, swallowed, digested, and expelled by the graciousness of life could understand. I wasn’t of this place anymore, this small southern Indiana town, but I knew its people, these younger folks that piled in, gathering for what was sure to be a good fight, or at least they had hoped it would be. We all did.
I’d heard about the fight through an old buddy of mine the other night at the tavern. We discussed the old days when we were growing up trying to make a name for ourselves by talking tough and seeking out and challenging the craziest motherfucker that we could find. And he’d said, “They’re still doin’ it.”
“What?” I said. And he continued on by telling me about the bare-knuckle underground fighting circuit and the two crazy sons-of-bitches that were fighting today.
This backwoods venue, I was told, was called The Pigpen. The brawl was to begin at six o’clock. We rumbled in on our bikes around five and there was a blonde in cut-off jeans and a tight black tank top collecting a five dollar admission charge at the start of a long, dirt road that led back to the where the fight was taking place. She possessed a hard, eye-pleasing figure, but her face was lined, worn, and toothless.
“Hey, darling,” I said to her as Jerry and I paid our money.
“Hi,” she said and gave us a wide, toothless smile.
We rode on and eventually parked. It wasn’t long and Jerry and I settled in among the downtrodden and damned. My arthritic hands strained to unscrew the cap off an unopen bottle of Evan Williams. Another twist and the cap came free and I turned the bottle up and let two swallows roll down. Hard time and hard labor had taken its toll on me after twenty years. I extended the bottle to Jerry, but he declined.
The party was well underway before the fight had begun. Someone had said that people had started arriving before noon and others had been here all night, never sleeping and probably not thinking about sleep. A young couple sat on a tailgate passing a joint. In fact, many were smoking weed. It was all around us, in the air. Another couple in plain sight fucked next to a tree. People cheered, played music, snorted unknown substances and did just about whatever they wanted to.
The fight wasn’t to start for another half-hour and I wanted to check this place out. I told Jerry to come on and we set out through the crowd. I drank from my bottle, offered Jerry a drink, and again he declined. We broke through the people and in a grassy field came to a scattering of tents where in the middle a large grill smoked slabs of meat. A topless group of women sat in lawn chairs drinking beer. The Evan Williams was kicking in, so I told Jerry we should go over and introduce ourselves, and admire some of the lovely ladies.
“Sounds good to me,” he said.
We walked over and they all looked at us and then went back to talking and drinking. There were others gathered around. A woman next to us chopped a line of something across a mirror. These people were free as they could be, or fucking stupid. They had no guard up to anyone. She offered her drugs and I shook my head and pulled Evan from my vest pocket.
“No thanks,” I said.
Jerry shrugged. “Fuck it,” he said, and stepped up and snorted a bump. While Jerry became acquainted with the woman, I sipped my whiskey and looked again to the naked women. If I were in charge, one or two of them would be granted the right to go topless. For the others, they wouldn’t be allowed to go outside with or without clothes—ugly bitches.
I looked around and realized this place hadn’t changed that much over the years I’d been away. It was the same fucked up people in the same fucked up town. It started to depress me.
Jerry and I walked back to where we’d originally come in and finally the fighters began entering the makeshift ring. The energy of the crowd lifted ten notches. They tightened in, encaging them, like two Roman gladiators that were forced to fight and quit only when one had killed the other. I retrieved my bottle and my arthritic hands strained again. Another twist and I got it. A large balding dude with gut hanging over his belt announced the fighters. One was named Jesco Morgan and the other was Johnny-Boy Clark. I didn’t know who they were at first, but then Jerry told me that I did. After he explained who they were, who their daddies were, I sensed an even deeper connection to these two. I had been away for so many unraveling years and forgotten so many that their names had slipped away, as unused memories often do.
“How they doin?” I asked of the boys’ daddies.
“Dead,” said Jerry. “Both of ‘em. Bill Morgan died of lung cancer. Not sure what got Browning. Even Jesco’s momma, Louise, just died. Overdose is what everyone’s saying.”
“Damn,” I said. “Addiction never was prejudiced to age.”
Then, after a moment he added, “Pass the bottle, Leon.” I handed it over and someone struck a cowbell. I glanced around to see no one milling on the outskirts of the crowd. The young couple that was fucking by the tree was gone. The tailgaters had disappeared. All eyes were on the fighters.
The young men were of equal size and build. Their hard, lean, and shirtless torsos squared up in the center of the ring. Their personal history with each other I did not know. Sometimes a personal vendetta helped materialize an event such as this one. And other times, as I mentioned before, it was to see who was the toughest in all the land. That was in the old days. Now it was about money, about trying to survive in this God-forsaken shit-hole town, and that was okay. One had to change with the times.
A jab to the jaw of Jesco got the action underway, and he countered with a booming uppercut to exposed ribs. As I understood them, the rules were the use of fists only. No biting, gouging, kicking, head butting or grappling. A straight up bare-knuckle match, just like the old days. All skill, stamina, and physical and mental toughness.
The two men retreated a step or two after gaining a better understanding of the other’s punching power. With fists raised, chins tucked, and intense focus, they stepped in unison, mirroring each other. These determined men, with grit in their eyes and fire in their souls, got me to thinking about the time I was up against not one crazy drunken maniac, but two that wanted to slice me open at the navel, and let my innards fall to the gravel parking lot, outside the bar where we’d spent all day drinking and snorting cocaine in the bathroom.
One of the hombres had been trying all evening to dance with my old lady. Every time I had gone to piss or gone to the bar for another round of beers, the stupid, yet determined asshole ventured over to our table. After the third or fourth time, I’d had enough of his shit. While he sat at his table laughing, telling jokes from his rotten, toothless face, at my expense I’m sure, I walked up behind and grabbed him by the back of his greasy hair and bounced his head off the table in front of him. Immediately, I headed toward the door, which was a few steps away and waited in the parking lot.
There was daylight left in the sky when he came out flashing the blade he’d pulled from somewhere. I thought he was scared or just fucking crazy. Maybe both.
“I’m gonna make you bleed, you fuckin bitch!” he said and came at me. One of his pals followed him out the door, he too brandishing a blade.
Now, the bar my old lady and I drank at that day wasn’t our usual hangout. This shithole was on the opposite end of town from our normal bar, so the people that fled out to watch didn’t know me well enough to jump in and even the odds. Sizing up my dilemma, I increased my chances of winning by pulling from my waistband, my tucked away .38 Snub nose.
The first bruiser with a knife saw my intentions and ducked behind a pick-up truck. Smart man. The second one pulled a gun of his own. I wasted no time. I fired. He fired. He missed. I did not. I received forty years for killing that man. I did twenty. A rush of adrenaline in a survival situation can make a man do things he never thought he was capable of doing. And I knew these two facing off in these backwoods were undoubtedly fueled by that same human instinct to survive that I had all those years ago.
The crowd of townies and backwoods misfits cheered as the two traded strikes and blows. Johnny-Boy had a bleeding gash under his left eye, and Jesco’s nose leaked red down and over his lips and off his chin. On light feet, Jesco pivoted, reared, and struck, all in the blur of single motion. The blow was heard throughout the crowd. Connecting with the side of his head, Johnny-Boy fell under jellied legs. He gave no indication that he could go on. He lay lifeless. The fight was over.
I’d been in many fights, as a prisoner and a free man, and I knew what both men were feeling at that moment, as the victor and the defeated. Many years passed me by before I realized that life would be a series of wins and defeats. I’d come to understand this reality in prison when the quiet, lonely nights consumed my being. And they may not understand it now, the two younger men who had just gone head to head trying to prove who was the tougher of the two, trying to collect a sizable payday, trying to survive, but they would understand that life would become better, if not in a financial capacity, at least in a mental one if they allowed it, if they opened their minds to it.
Some of the crowd yelled its pleasure for the fight’s winner while others jeered the outcome. I had no financial stake. I saw Jerry collect his winnings from a disgruntled young man standing next to him.
“Maybe next time, old man,” said the boy.
“Come again,” said Jerry, tucking the bills away in his pocket.
After some time, Johnny-Boy collected himself and the two in the ring cleared out and people went back to partying and raising hell and never giving a second thought to the young men who’d just sacrificed a little of themselves. The crowd saw the fight as being no more than part of the entertainment.

I’d seen enough. Jerry and I settled on our bikes with our buzzed minds. We hit the dirt road and eventually the highway, riding away from the booze, the drugs, and the town I’d left twenty years before, the town that I now rode away from, forever.
~~~

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This story is included in the book HARD LUCK.