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.
This story is included in the book HARD LUCK.