Owen stood in the boxing ring in the back of Bichelmayer’s Meat Market, using the edge of a turnbuckle to press the swollen flesh away from his eye. Breath came ragged through his teeth and exhalation whistled through a crack in his nose. His hearing, gone, blasted by the cacophony of the crowd. The stuck flesh on his eyelid made blinking a chore. He ran his head across the turnbuckle again, the frayed leather scraping his cheek, hooking the excess over his eye. No improvement. The bell rang, distant, as if through a long tunnel. Only one eye would have to do.
My old man worked the rails for years and years and not once lost his temper. At home or in a bar, he lost it quite frequently, but on the job he ran cool and quiet, except for the time in Indiana when the brakeman was rough-riding the lever so that the cars jostled and collided every few miles. My father, Hank, sitting in the caboose, felt it the worst. Each jerk sent him lurching forward so that the whiskey overflowed the rim of his mug. Every jounce elicited a quiet “damn”, until finally, on the umpteenth bump, Hank hoisted himself from his seat and pulled the emergency cord. I fell forward and braced myself with my cheek against the bulkhead, listening as the high screech of wheels slit my ears and vibrated my teeth, the keen of two-hundred and twenty cars braking as one.
When they stopped, my old man instructed me to hold the emergency cord for him. “I’m going out,” he said. “Don’t you let go. Not till I’m back here or I radio you.”
I obeyed, watching him throw open the cabin door and jumping down to the frigid track. Though I never saw the brawl, I heard the story enough in the months and years to come, and would retell it myself for even longer after Hank had died. He walked the whole two-hundred and twenty paces up the locomotive, hauled the itchy-palmed brakeman down from the engine, and beat him in that cold Indiana field. Of the men that told the story, some said that the brakeman was green and had deserved it. Others said Hank jumped him unjustly.
I had no opinion—just second-hand facts and the memory of his bloody knuckles as he climbed back into the caboose, winded from the walk. He slumped back into his seat at the chart table. “Let it go,” Hank said.
Owen turned and stumbled out to the center of the ring. The other guy had no name. It had been shouted out five rounds ago, back when Owen had two working eyes and could breathe straight, but he couldn’t remember it. His opponent was just fists, face, and a way to turn twenty dollars into forty. Owen went at him the only way he could. This deep into the fight, he couldn’t afford to be fancy. No body-blows, no strategy. Just bombs aimed for the face. He felt the hits in shocks, running up his arms.
When I was younger, Hank built a ring in the loft. He summoned the local boys–––I had to beat them or get beat myself; a good incentive and pretty soon kids my age wouldn’t come around for fear of leaving with a busted nose. Then my old man started inviting older ones. Guys who had me by forty-odd pounds. Guys that I couldn’t beat. Hank understood how impossible it was and wouldn’t rough me up if I lost.
Still, my old man always expected more. Hank had been the Northwest Missouri State Heavyweight Champion, and though he had talked about it for more years than he had lived it, he felt it gave him the eyes of an expert. “Keep those damn hands up, Owen!” He stood on a ladder, where his height wouldn’t force him to stoop under the low ceiling of the loft. “Work the guts! Lower! Lower!”
The adversary swung high and Owen barely dodged his left hook. Pushing forward, he made an opening for himself, delivering quick jabs to the other guy’s stomach. His arms were sluggish, his fists seemed to paw more than connect, like he was fighting in a dream. His opponent tossed him back, knocking his hands aside. Owen never saw the uppercut coming.
Darkness passed. He awoke on the apron, the mat pressed up against the back of his skull. A face was above him, ringed by the ceiling lights. “You’re done, kid. C’mon.”
The twenty bucks remained twenty bucks—loser’s pay, standard for an out-of-towner. There would’ve been more were it not for the locker fee. Owen tried to explain that he had not used a locker, so that fee was unwarranted. He still left the poorer. Outside on the curb sat the guy who had clocked him, his gym sack resting next to him while he smoked a cigarette. He saw Owen and waved.
“Good fight. Hope I didn’t hurt you too bad.”
“Likewise,” said Owen. The other guy’s nose was crooked, but it had been that way before the fight. Otherwise his face was clean. “Waiting on someone?”
“My wife,” he handed a cigarette and lighter to Owen. “She’s taking her sweet time. Her sister lives around here, so when I fight she takes the car over there and visits, which means she’s always late getting back for me.”
Owen understood the gripe, but didn’t say so. He might have sympathized with the guy, but commiserating was hard with someone who had so recently broken his nose. He was more comfortable staying silent.
“She’s alright, though,” said the guy. “Been trying to get a kid outta me, but I’m not too sure. It’d be hard to do this and raise a kid at the same time.”
“Easier than you think. I got a son in Topeka.” Owen smoked his cigarette for a polite amount of time before bidding the other guy good luck. He walked south, away from the meat market. The daylight had gone and turned the snowmelt to ice that cloyed between the bricks and swelled across their tops. Owen negotiated the ice with care.
It was a layover in Conception, Missouri that brought us into the little bar. I never used the name of the place when I told the story, partly because I didn’t remember it and partly because the namelessness of the bar made the event seem routine. My old man insisted we have a drink and I went along to keep him out of trouble. Keeping him out of trouble was half of my job by that point, no matter how impossible that was.
Hank made a big show of ordering, talking up the bartender, talking down the town of Conception, Missouri, and making an ass of himself. “It’s a hovel,” he said. “You know what a hovel is, son?”
“Yes, sir.” I sipped my beer and looked around. Midday on a Tuesday brought a sparse crowd, most of them older farm-types. Two weren’t. They played pool and glared as my old man went on. I sized them up, feeling out the kind of problem we might have on our hands.
“A hovel,” Father continued, “is bible-talk for a dump. You ever crack open your Old Testament and you’ll see a lot of people talking about Sodom and Gomorrah the same way you ought to talk about Conception, Missouri; it’s a hell-hole you ought never to visit, unless you’re seeking good-for-nothing debauchery.”
I shook my head and sighed. I leaned over. “Maybe don’t—”
“I’m making a point.” My old man winked, as if it was all some great joke. “Besides, there isn’t a man here that could take us.”
That did it. The pool table kids made a show of slamming their cues down and storming over. I stood up to meet them. My old man got up, grinning like a fisherman who’d found the right bait.
Owen, when he told the story, said they won, or at least came out the better. Then he claimed the two sides sat down and drank together, yacking about women and work for the rest of the night. The truth of it, like the truth of most fights, is that there was no winner or loser, but rather a quiet petering out as grunts became sighs and the two sides lost the motivation to keep going. No one drank together.
It was past midnight in the West Bottoms. The area had flooded less than a year back and there were no plans to repair it. Disemboweled brick buildings were left standing, their timber innards blown into the streets in loose piles. Anyone who lived or worked in the Bottoms had fled east, trading business in livestock for the dive bars and women of Genesee Street.
Owen’s hands were numb in his jacket pockets. He walked through empty warehouses and accounting houses where the snow collected in drifts under the withered roofs. He made his way toward the old train yard, deserted along with the rest of the neighborhood. Train cars remained where the flood toppled them; a locomotive lay on its side, the wheels and motive bars stripped for parts, leaving just a husk more expensive to refurbish than to replace. Behind it, a stretch of tankers rusted in the moonlight, and beyond that, sat ninety-odd boxcars collecting the winter in their open doors.
Owen walked the length of the dead train. The caboose rested forty yards back from the trail car. The flood had broken the cabin free of the chassis, but set it down right side up, intact despite its surroundings. Owen recognized the model, having ridden too many miles in cars just like it. He jimmied the door loose and walked inside.
The windows held up enough to keep out the worst of the weather, but most furniture was gone. The chart table and chair remained, both bolted to the frame.
Owen tossed his bag on the table and slumped into the chair. He looked around the caboose and its stripped, bare walls. He wondered if anyone had looted the car, and if so, what they had done with the little stove that had ‘property of Union Pacific’ over the burner knobs. He wondered what kind of person has a stolen stove little better than a hotplate in their kitchen and if they were ashamed of it or not. He wondered why he had so many stories about his father but none that’d been worth telling at his funeral. He wondered about the point of being a welterweight in warehouse brawls, and if the twenty bucks to send home was worth the pain in his head and not being home to enjoy it. He wondered what his son would say, given the choice, and if not being around to make stories was maybe better than making crappy stories not fit for a poor man’s eulogy. He reached for his bag and perused the train schedule for Topeka. In there, with the other clutter, was a dusty photo, dirt inching onto its corners, of Owen and his son standing in the yard of their home. Owen examined it, staring intently at its murky colors, and sighed.
Owen stood up and hung his hand on the brake line, frayed and cold in his grip. He looked at the chart table where the old man had ridden for years, where he had collapsed after walking all two-hundred and twenty cars, his knuckles red. “Let it go, Owen,” he had said then, in the part of the story no one else told because they weren’t there and that Owen never told because it made the old man look weak.
“Let it go, Owen,” he had said then, about the brake line.
Owen let it go.
Nick Avalos has always been very interested in art and, specifically, storytelling for as long as he can remember. Whether its film, short fiction, or novels he loves exploring a variety of genres and concepts always leading back to the one main focal point of all great stories, the human spirit. Ultimately, anything that we connect with in the form of art is because of some intrinsic feeling or emotion we perceive when experiencing it pertaining to the human experience and that’s what he enjoys about writing. It is a unique way of analyzing humanity and, like our very own Robert Pippin said, doing philosophy by other means.