Fast games

After the Lights Out ‹ Literary Center

The following is from John Vercher After the lights go out. Vercher holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Mountainview Master of Fine Arts program. He is a contributing writer for WBUR Boston’s Cognoscenti, and NPR features his essays on race, identity and parenthood. Her first novel, three fifths, was named one of the best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, CrimeReads and Booklist. It was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, Lefty and Strand Magazine Critics’ Awards for Best First Novel.

“My mind is playing tricks on me”

Last year he left his groceries in the trunk for two days. He had just gotten the call – a number one contender fight. After alternating victories and defeats, he had chained

together four in a row, avoiding a cut of the list by the thinnest of margins. The old, the companion. Not a has-been but a never-was. Despite… no, because of the skeptics and their pleas to leave his gloves in the middle of the cage. No one would have thought of him less if he had resigned on his own terms. The game had passed Xavier “Scarecrow” Wallace. Too many young bucks are looking for a stepping stone to the next level. The cage had no place for the toothless old lions fighting for their pride.

And then four in a row. No cans of tomatoes either. Kickboxers Championship. The aces of jiu-jitsu. Everyone the next big thing. But none of them had the bite in them. All talent and hormones. Cardio made them cowards. Xavier took them to deep water, championship rounds where lactic acid burned muscle. Where deep breaths provided no oxygen, only the desperate need to breathe deeper. Faster. My shoulders hurt. The submissions lacked pressure. The punches lost their snap. Sloppy kicks, launched with languid legs, articulated and pivoting at the level of the joints by simple momentum. Break the spirit and the body quickly follows behind.

But he had also paid a price for his time in the deep end.

*

Worse than the patchwork remnants of stitches on his forehead; worse than the buildup of crackling scar tissue above his shredded orbital bones; worse, even, than headaches that seem endless and intensify. Worse than all this was oblivion.

Sweet at first. Pieces of times past, sketches of memories slipped on a blackboard where only the faintest outline of words and images remained. More and more often, he had the impression of having been somewhere, of having done something, without knowing how, when or if. The ravages of age, he told himself, nothing more. Some days he almost believed it.

When the candidate’s call came, he was ready. Weight was not as easy as it was ten years ago, so he had kept his diet tight. A fight meant keeping it even tighter. Temptation beckoned when the fridge was empty, so it was off to the grocery store for the usual suspects. Packages of skinless chicken breasts. Bags of brown rice. Sweet potatoes. Leafy greens. Broccoli. Gallons of distilled water. He’d tossed his plastic bags of calorie-free treats into the trunk and headed to the gym to tell Shot the news before heading home.

That night had been rough. He conjured up images of the upcoming fight. No matter how many times he climbed the stairs leading to the cage, his terrible mental rehearsal was still the same. Unintentional and unwelcome. And never was more at stake than now. A contender’s fight meant media days. Press conferences. Appearances on local television. He also played them. The questions about his age and how many wars he had left in the tank. His thoughts about his opponent try to trigger the inevitable chatter. He was lying on his back in the dark, his eyes wide open. A warm breeze wafted through his open bedroom window. Sweat beaded on his bare chest. The broken air conditioning window unit was like a gravestone in homage to his own demise. Even in the middle of the night, the humidity of an August in Philadelphia hung in the air like fog, pressing against the wooden siding of his father’s Montgomery County bungalow.

Resigned to insomnia, he pulled the back of his legs off the sheets and forced himself to sit on the side of the bed. He gripped the edge of the mattress and closed his eyes, waiting for the rotation to slow, then stop, positional dizziness another unwanted trophy, awarded after years of violent beatings to the head. Her doctor had told her that the spinning was coming from her ears, something about floating crystals, a condition requiring specialist treatment. Xavier imagined a long-haired guy wearing socks and sandals with a stringy goatee waving a shard of glass over his ears, collecting a copayment of seventy-five dollars for five minutes of work. He told his doctor he would try his luck. Her doctor then offered her medication, but side effects included dizziness. Xavier completely stopped seeing him.

The rotation stopped and he stood up. A cacophony of pops and clicks echoed through his joints, from ankles to spine. He tried but couldn’t ignore the swell of pressure behind his eyes, the hiss of tinnitus steam in his ears, an unwelcome and aggravating addition to the oblivion of recent times. From a pile of clothes at the edge of the bed, he put on a paint-splattered tank top and basketball shorts and entered the small hallway leading from the bedroom to the kitchen. Canvas tarps covered the ground. A roll sat in a pan. Painting frozen in the well.

The scroll sizzled against the wall as it traversed it back and forth, up and down, the motion hypnotic, the sage green covering the off-white. After the first diaper he was no more ready to sleep than before, but the tinnitus had gotten stronger. He made his way to the kitchen where he pressed his hands to the counter. His eyes closed, he wanted the hissing to go away, but the intensity increased. He sat down on the floor, his long legs stretched out in front of him, and rested the back of his head on a cool closet door.

And then woke up. Not in bed.

Open eyes. Stiff neck. Pain in the ass.

Sweat had glued the skin of his scalp to the closet door and he pulled his head back. He shook off the stiffness in his knees and stood up, gripping the edge of the faux granite counter to stabilize the room. Through the window above the sink, the great sun shone orange through his closed eyelids as he waited for the spin to finish. Around the carousel, he scanned the room and saw the roll in the pan. The hallway walls had more paint than before.

Is not it?

The fumes, perhaps. It made sense. They dozed him off and he sat up. He should have opened more windows. It sounded like something he might have said to himself back then. Of course, that was why he had fallen asleep. On the floor. In the kitchen. Perfectly reasonable. Unlike microwave clock time. 3:24. In the afternoon.

It’s impossible.

He walked from the kitchen into the living room, ducking his head under the doorframe, and retrieved his cell phone. The clock on the screen showed the same as the microwave. There were a number of text messages and calls from Shot. Xavier had missed his morning practice. And his afternoon workout.

My bad, Shot. I will double the road works. Hitting the track right now. See you at the gym tomorrow.

He looked at the screen. The speech bubble appeared, the dots darkening and fading in sequence before disappearing. Xavier’s face twitched. So:

K

“Damn it,” Xavier said. No way to make the trip to Manayunk now. Rush hour would be a nightmare by the time he got to Lincoln Avenue. Another headache swelled at the base of his skull. Back in the kitchen, he grabbed a gallon of distilled water from the pantry and swallowed two ibuprofens. A pair of running shoes sat by the front door. He picked them up and walked out into the summer mist.

An hour later he was home, sweaty and hungry. The heat from the asphalt track had burned the bottom of his shoes, propelling him forward, faster than his intended pace. The relentless flame of the sun had weight and rounded his shoulders. He took off his tank top, dropped it on the linoleum with a wet slap, and swallowed over half the gallon of water, chuckling loudly as the plastic imploded. The remaining water he poured into a pot on the stove. He turned on the gas burner and went to the fridge to boil a chicken breast and noted that it was his last. The crisper was just as sparse and her bag of rice in the pantry was down to its last serving. At the grocery store tomorrow then.

The next morning, the list he had taped to the fridge reminded him of his errand. He walked to his car, opened the driver’s side door and was hit by a strong smell. A sour smell, like the meat drawer of his refrigerator during a power outage in the middle of summer a while ago (when has been this?). He stuck his head in the back seat, the smell was stronger there. Rashes and sweaty shorts sat behind the passenger seat. He knew that smell, and it wasn’t that one. He blew up the trunk. There were the provisions he had forgotten to have bought the day before. Spoiled chicken in a murky pink puddle of its own juice. Wilted broccoli glistening with slime.

Cooked under the summer sun.

__________________________________

Of After the lights go out by John Vercher. Used with permission from the publisher, Soho Press. Copyright 2022 by John Vercher.


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