We were on our way—three generations of Killino men stuffed into a subcompact Ford, en route to do what Killino men do best: eat and drink and watch other men beat each other’s brains in. Dad and I hadn’t been to a live wrestling show in years. Pop had neither been nor wanted. He derided the whole thing as rubbish. Grown men in little underwear, pretending to hit each other. We did our best to sell him on it; we wanted him to have fun. Even though it’s scripted, we told him, you can’t fake falling onto concrete or steel. It still hurts like hell.
“Scripted?” Pop said. “So it’s what, like a dance?”
“Not a dance, Dad.” My father smiled, but his voice carried a touch of that for-the-love-of-God tenor. “They just know how it’s gonna end.”
Pop shot me a side eye. “Sounds like a dance to me.”
Fake fighting wasn’t something that he tolerated. The man had fought in two wars and then during every surrounding moment of stateside peace. He’d been a champion boxer throughout his youth and flat-fucking mean in his adult life. He claimed to have once killed a gangster back in the Palisades by stepping on his neck for five minutes. But he’d also aged into a silly old bastard, a trait that had always been there and one Dad was relieved to see flourish as the aggression had waned.
Pop sat suspiciously still in the front seat, greasy pompadour glistening above thick, smarmy eyebrows. Then he extended his hands out to his sides like little tyrannosaur arms and wiggled his fingers. A tyrannosaur Hazel Scott playing two pianos at once. “Oh, look at me,” he cooed. “I’m going to the fat man ballet.”
“Well, you’ll be right at home then, Dad.”
“You callin’ me fat?” Pop squawked.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well it’s either that or you think I’m some sort of ballerini.”
“Call me fat,” he said. “The nerve.” He wagged his thumb at Dad and then twisted himself around toward me. “Look.” He rapped his knuckles against his wrecking ball of an abdomen. “Here. Look at here. Hard as a rock. Look.”
I looked. I nodded. “Solid as oak,” I said.
“And just as wide,” Dad proclaimed.
Pop gave him dagger eyes, maybe poison dagger eyes, that set Dad off on a roar. I was on the brink.
“You hear this?” He turned to me again, and again with the thumb. “He’s some kind of wisenheimer.” Then back to Dad. “Thanks, Jackie. Nice to know you think I’m fat.”
“Oh, don’t pout,” Dad admonished. “And I didn’t say you were fat.”
“But you implored it.”
We both lost it.
“I didn’t implore anything.”
“So then which is it, huh? Come on. Out with it.”
“Shit, I don’t know, Dad. Take your pick. I implore you.”
The venue was a Catholic high school the diocese had shut down a decade earlier. It had two green copper steeples that you could see from almost anywhere in town, and the event promoter had hung a gigantic white banner from two arched windows above the oversized doorway. It showed a sexy female ambulance driver with a terrified expression and white-knuckled grip on a steering wheel. The title, Blood for Days, was splattered across in giant red lettering. As we pulled in, Pop crossed his heart and warbled Ave Maria.
Kids chased each other across the lot, and beer-drinking fans crowded around barbecue grills and coolers and lounged in beach chairs. Drunken corn holers staggered across lanes. You could smell the bratwurst through the car windows.
The gymnasium itself was half a basketball court and wooden bleachers along one short wall. The ring was set in the middle of the floor, surrounded first by steel guardrails, then five or six rows of metal folding chairs labeled with marker on masking tape. We were at the end of Row D. We put Pop right on the runway aisle, the one the wrestlers would use to get to the ring. This lady and her young kid were right in front of Dad and me. The kid wore an old Mil Máscaras mask that sagged around his head. The mother wore a blue cape and mask and a cut-off Def Leppard t-shirt. The guy in front of Pop wasn’t masked, but it couldn’t have hurt. He sagged over both sides of his chair when he sat down. We’d passed this man on our way in. He’d been ladling pulled pork out of a slow cooker and then eating it right out of the ladle. Pop puffed out his cheeks and did his Hazel fingers again.
Then the lights went out.
A man’s voice sounded over the loudspeaker and asked us if we were ready for Blood for Days. Everyone cheered. Then a spotlight kicked on and shone a circle onto a black curtain they’d set up at the end of the runway aisle.
Samba music began playing, and the crowd went nuts. The first thing that emerged from behind the curtain was a foot. Just a foot. One pink tootsie dangling in the spotlight. Then, an entire leg, pink and tassled, postured like a cartoon hitchhiker. Like, hubba hubba. Then bam, this guy in a frilly pink onesie popped through, chest and arms spread like he was God’s friggin’ gift. The guy pranced down the aisle, the spotlight following him the entire way. Some other lights came on and illuminated the ring—a total “land of milk and honey” feel to it. He scaled the ring post and, from there, he showered us all with his grace. People ate it up. The kid, the blue lady, the manatee in front of Pop. Everyone. Then the guy did this thing with his hips, this gyration, all while still balancing up there on the post. I looked over at Pop, thinking we were never going to hear the end of this one. But no. He was focused intently on Gostoso—that was the guy’s name. He just watched Gostoso do his thing.
While Gostoso was still up there gesticulating, the music cut out. The house lights came back up to full, and then it was bagpipes. Like, a dozen sets of bagpipes. With bagpipers. They were lined up in front of the curtain and blowing hard. Fans gasped. At the crescendo, a behemoth barreled through. Had to be close to seven feet tall. Kilted. Shirtless. Furry from the neck down but nary a hair on his head. Thick blue stripe painted down the middle of his face. Eyes perfectly round, you know, like something was going on in there, something a little different. The blue wackjob told Mini Máscaras that the guy was Mense Mauler. She was sure he’d been banned from the sport for life after an incident overseas involving a railroad spike.
Mauler lived up to his name. He stretched and battered and bent Gostoso until he lay motionless in the ring. It took roughly one minute. Then the bagpipers went for it again. Most everybody booed with the exception of a few sadists sprinkled throughout the gymnasium. The boos turned to cheers when poor Gostoso tried to get up, but it didn’t last. Something was wrong with his hips. His legs were splayed like frog’s legs. He couldn’t seem to pull them underneath him.
“That’s just terrible,” Pop said. “He didn’t deserve that. Hey, Jackie. That’s not fair.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Dad.”
“Life’s not fair, Pop.”
“Yeah, but you said it was all cardiographed.”
“Whatever. Why’d they do that?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“That’s not right, boy. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Hey, things happen.”
We were perplexed. After all that talk earlier, three hip swivels and a few tough bumps and he’d become a Gostoso fan.
While event staff helped Gostoso out of the ring, Pop adjusted himself in his seat and accidentally kicked the chair in front of him. The bovine turned and scowled at him. “Quit it,” he said.
“He didn’t mean it,” Dad said.
“I was getting settled,” Pop added.
“Getting settled,” the guy said. “After the end of the match.”
Pop gave him a what-the-hell look. The gourmand wasn’t moved. He turned back around when the music hit for the next match.
The main event was our reason for being there. It pitted two of Dad’s long-time favorites against one another: Marvelous Manny Handlebars, the Infamous Barber of Scarsdale, against Iron Mike Nichols. Both men had been studs in their day. Nichols still wore traditional black tights and a black, serrated forearm guard that he could use as a cheese grater on his opponents. Back in the day, he’d looked kind of like a beefy David Hasselhoff. Now, he looked like a beefier Hasselhoff who had gone bald and let himself go because he’d become depressed about going bald. He still wore the forearm guard, though, which could do some real damage. Marvelous Manny had always been lean and still was, but his physique had atrophied. Even his mustache was sparse. Barely qualified as a handlebar. But once the bell rang and the two locked up, none of it mattered. They were transcendent. Anomalous. Shiny and shapeless. They were ridiculous and glorious and loved. And all with abandon.
At one point, Manny got Nichols in a sleeper hold, his finisher. The crowd roared as Nichols appeared to be going out. They stomped passionately in the bleachers. The referee prodded, lifted Nichols’s hand and then let go to see if he could hold it up on his own. The hand dropped once. Then again. The din rose to howls. That’s when the fat man in front of Pop turned and started shouting.
“Do it again!” he boomed in Pop’s face. “I’m serious, god damnit! You’ve been doing it all night. Kick my chair one more fucking time.”
I figured that was it. At eighty years old, Pop was going to clobber the poor oaf and get us thrown out of the wrestling show. At least he’d have another story to tell. But then Dad went to step between them, and the guy shoved his chair into Dad’s shins.
That’s when I stepped in.
He started to talk, and I told him to shut up. I said he wasn’t going to shove a chair at my father or start a fight with my grandfather. And I said, “Don’t give me any of that ‘he’s been kicking my chair all night’ shit. He did it once, at the beginning, and it was an accident. He’s an old man for Christ’s sake.” Now I was pointing my finger at his face. “So just sit your fat ass down and watch the show and don’t bother him again.”
Manny and Nichols both leaned on the ropes, watching. The referee stood beside them, looking unsure.
The guy said, “What are you gonna do if I don’t?”
Everybody was watching us. The wrestlers, the blue wacko and the kid, the howlers in the bleachers. I could see the kid’s eyes through the mask, wide and white. It was like he needed me to do this. Like the spirit of Mil Máscaras compelled me. I was the babyface here. I had to. So I loaded up and cuffed him in the side of the head.
He reeled. He grabbed. We fell. I hit him. He hit back. We rolled. Arms grabbed at us and ultimately pulled us apart. Someone took my arm and said I was bleeding. My hand was red. “Not mine,” I said. I was fine. He’d glanced me once across the top of my head but that was it. I wiped my hand on my pants. Not a scratch.
“No,” the guy said. And he pointed.
Just below my left armpit, buried to the bolster, was the handle of a tiny pocket knife.
A group of people, I think they were event staff, started talking to me, guiding me by the shoulders away from our seats. Someone mentioned the other guy. “Don’t worry about him,” he said. “The police will deal with him. We need to get you to the hospital.”
I turned to find Dad. He was crouched beside Pop, who was on one knee and clutching his chest.
We rode in the same ambulance. Pop lay conscious on a gurney while they talked to him and ran initial tests. They said it would save time and that he looked okay. Dad held his hand and kept telling him that he was right there. Not to worry. I sat next to Dad with my one elbow resting on his shoulder, giving the little knife handle room to breathe. The EMTs were scared to pull it out and didn’t want to move me too much on account of the blade shifting and damaging me internally. Posture, one of the guys kept saying. Shallow breaths. They figured something had been punctured even though I said I didn’t feel any pain. They thought it might just be shock, but I didn’t buy it. I was calm and I felt nothing. Like nothing at all.
They kept me in the Emergency Room while they took Pop to directly to coronary care. I assured Dad I’d be fine, and so he went with him. He said he’d be down to check on me as soon as Pop was stable. They brought me to a little curtained-off room and had me sit on the bed. A police officer came a minute later and asked me questions. I told him everything that had happened with the fat guy, all the way back to the pulled pork. He said he didn’t think they would charge me for hitting him because we were both hitting each other. He wanted to know if I wanted to press charges for the stab wound. He suggested I did. If I didn’t, they probably would anyway. I said hell yes and he said he’d be back with something for me to sign.
When he turned to leave, my nurse appeared from behind him. She was this short, light-skinned Dominican lady named Alba with bright pink lips who chewed her gum loudly. She told me to call her Gigi. She asked me a bunch of questions. She was fascinated by the knife in my side. “You really don’t feel it?” she said.
“Like, not even a little? Like nothing?”
She brought her face to within inches of it. Examined it from all angles. I could feel her breath in my armpit. It felt like she was getting really excited. “Wow,” she said. “I just want to touch it, you know? Like, flick it with my finger, see if it wobbles back and forth. It’s kinda cute.”
“So are you going to take it out?”
“Oh, no. Can’t do that.” She stood upright and smacked her gum with authority. Looked at her clipboard. “We need to do a FAST. See if you’re bleeding internally. We don’t play around with things like that. Then she cut off my t-shirt. She said she’d get me a gown if I wanted, but she’d have to cut a big hole in it to make sure the knife wouldn’t get disturbed. She gave me a look that said she’d rather not go through with all of that. I told her I was fine without it. I wasn’t cold or shy. She stroked my forearm lovingly. She said, “I’ll come get you as soon as we’re ready. Okay, baby?”
She left, and the curtain that separated me from the other bed in the room started to move. It was a kid’s hand pulling it, and when it started to struggle, I helped. I drew the curtain all the way back and this boy, probably nine or ten years old, was lying there. He was a twig, but he had those large, wide-set eyes that child actors have. And that messy hair that looks best when it’s messy. Like, the girls are just gonna eat this kid up later on. He didn’t look great. He looked sick, like he had the flu or something. He’d been sweating, but he looked okay. He didn’t have knives sticking out of him. A couple IV lines. I asked him how he was doing, and he just made this face, like a yuck face.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. He looked at the blood on my jeans. “Did you cut yourself on the edge of a coffee table, too?”
“Nope.” I turned so he could see my new little appendage.
He made a different kind of face. “Does it hurt?”
“Nah,” I said. “It probably should, and it’s probably a good thing. Maybe it cut some nerves or something. It should probably hurt like hell.”
He tried to sit up a little, but he was struggling, so I told him to relax and edged closer so he could see better. “How long is, how far is it in there?”
“Don’t know. I never saw it coming. Judging by the handle, can’t be more than two inches, though.”
He shook his little Hollywood head. “I don’t get how that doesn’t hurt. It could be cutting your insides. Like your organs.”
“Could. But I feel fine. I think it missed everything important. Won’t know until they do some tests.”
Those big eyes became pensive. “I don’t understand how that could happen.”
I shrugged. “It’s kind of in my genes. My grandfather, he’s a tank. He’s got this outlook like nothing can take him down. Always been that way. And he’s been right. It’s how he’s survived. He likes to say that if you cut him in half, right down the middle, and threw one half on one side of the room and the other half on the other side, then they’d just crawl back together again.”
This kid was full of looks.
“He’s in here, too,” I said. He’s upstairs right now.”
“Does he have a. . . .?” He nodded toward the knife handle.
“No,” I said with a sort of smirk. “Heart attack. But he’ll be fine. He always is.”
Now he looked at me like I was a complete loon.
“So what are you in for?” I asked. “You said you cut yourself.”
He lifted his arm and revealed a small gash near his elbow. Nothing crazy, no stitches. It was a little purple. From the cut, a bright red streak ran up along the inside of his biceps to his shoulder.
“The table’s glass, and I fell and cut myself on the corner,” he said. “That was a few days ago. They say it’s infected. They’ve been giving me antibiotics, but I don’t think it’s working. My mom’s with the doctors now to see what else they can do.” He looked again at the knife handle. Then at my face. “You must have superpowers or something.”
“Nah,” I said. “Not a chance. At least not really.” I looked down at the stupid little knife handle. “It’s the attitude. Like, even when I saw this thing sticking out of me, I never worried. Not for an instant. I just knew I’d be good. I always do. I don’t know if it’s luck, but it’s just the way it works out. You’ve got to trust it.”
Gigi pulled back my curtain and said they were ready to scan me. How did I feel? Any pain? Nausea? How was my head? Still nothing?
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” the kid said.
Gigi helped me up. They didn’t want me to lie down and take a chance with the blade, so I walked with her.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she said to the kid. “I’ll have your new friend back in just a little while.”
As we started out of the Emergency Room, I asked her if we’d be able to stop and see Pop. Coronary Care was only up a few floors, but the doctor was waiting for us, so we couldn’t go at least until after the ultrasound. We met the tech on the way. He was this mid-forties white guy with a longish, seventies haircut. Middle part and a bushy moustache. Kind of like Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night. Gigi called him baby and he called her honey. We got to the room and he helped me onto the bed. In a thick Pennsyltuckian accent, he asked if I’d ever had an ultrasound, and I told him I had. I’d had a scare down below during my teens that turned out to be a calcification. I knew how it all worked. The gel would be cold. I was ready.
Gigi watched in awe while this guy worked the transducer. He was in awe, too.
“I just can’t believe what I’m seeing,” he said. “You’ve heard of the magic bullet theory, right? Well this is like the magic mini pocket knife. It just slipped right in between everything important. I’m not even seeing any blood accumulating.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said as though I had somehow orchestrated this small miracle. “I guess I’m just lucky with these kinds of things.”
He looked me in the face. “This is more like a superpower.”
Gigi went for the doctor so she could see for herself. The lady stood there, this petite Asian lady doctor with thick glasses and a loose bun, while Chuck gave her the grand tour of the Killino. Then she said, “Okay. Let’s get that thing out of you.”
The doctor told me to hold my arms out to my sides at shoulder height. She adjusted her glasses. Then she took a delicate hold of the knife handle. She told me to exhale. When my body steadied, she pulled the thing straight out.
I felt a tickle, only at the surface, only for an instant. Gigi immediately applied gauze.
The doctor asked me how I felt, and I said fine. When Gigi removed the gauze it barely bled. The doctor applied new gauze and placed my hand over it. “You’re something,” she said.
A tetanus shot and two stitches later, Gigi gave me papers and a gown and directed me toward the elevator. Coronary care was on the fifth floor. I showed my papers to the man at the desk. Gigi said to make sure I do that first so they didn’t see the gown and think I was a runaway. That happened from time to time. Sometimes, when homeless people were treated, they didn’t want to leave, and so they’d sneak around looking for empty beds to sleep in.
Pop was in Room 23B. He was the only patient in the room. He lay with tubes in his nose, mouth, and hands. His eyes were taped shut. His breaths were even, mechanical.
Dad sat beside him. “I was just about to come down,” he said when he saw me. “Are you okay?” He had a hole in his voice, an unpresence, the absence of a voice.
I nodded a small nod. “I’m fine. Just a couple stitches.” I pulled up the gown.
“Good,” he said. “I figured as much. Don’t know why I did, but I did.”
I sat down next to my father. He was hunched forward in a way that was foreign to me. Broken looking. Soft in the shoulder. He’d never been what I might call proper, never mentioned posture once that I could remember, but right then he looked as though he’d forgotten what it was. Like he’d forgotten his own body. He watched Pop and I watched him.
“Dad,” I said.
He turned his head toward me.
“How is he?”
He drew a breath. “Well, he had a mild heart attack. That’s what they said once we got up here and they checked him out. He was talking. He had a mask on, but he was talking. Chatting up the nurse, you know how he is. He was telling her how this was nothing compared to everything else in his life. He said he’d overcome a lot of diversity.”
That had to be top five. Easy.
“And then he went into cardiac arrest.”
I was confused. I knew what the words meant, but it was as though they had passed me straight, and I hadn’t been able to latch on.
Dad motioned to the machinery beside the bed. The tubes. The tape on his eyes. “They’ve got him heavily sedated so that his body only has to worry about healing. The ventilator is breathing for him. They put a cooling blanket on him to help protect his organs.” He wrung his hands. “They’re trying to stabilize him.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If it was mild. How does that happen? How does that happen to him?”
He watched Pop’s chest rise and fall. “I don’t know. Sometimes, it just happens.”
I studied his face. He was still out of body. I’d never seen my father like that. Not when he and Mom split. Not even when his own mother had passed. It wasn’t just fear or shock or impending grief that held him, but all of it. The anticipation, a thousand thoughts and experiences that had buried themselves within him over the years. Things I could never really know. Things that added up to not adding up, to just not being fair and that’s just all there was to it. That’s the order of it. Sometimes things just aren’t how they’re supposed to be.
But those were his things. I would have mine. I was. We all would in our own time. Hell, all of these people here….
Then something inside of me softened—not from the knife, and not in a pleasant way. It was like something inside of me had spoiled, something that I hadn’t even been aware of until that moment. And it couldn’t be un-spoiled.
A nurse came and checked Pop’s readings. She told us it wasn’t likely that anything would change overnight. We should go home and get some rest. I told Dad we should pass back through the ER so I could sign the police report. We found Gigi standing near the little room I’d been in. She was writing something. She looked distracted. Both beds were empty. She said the police officer had come back, but that he had to leave again. I would need to stop at the station to sign the report. She asked if I was okay.
I looked around and then said I was fine.
“Of course you are,” she said. “You’re a superhero.”
I grimaced something, something about it not being fair, and made some face in that moment I hoped resembled a smile. It probably didn’t, and it shouldn’t have.
“You’ll be okay,” she said and lay a hand upon me, her eyes heavy. “And I need that tonight. It’s been a night.”