Winner Takes All

“Hey, old man,” called out Ross.

Ross had been bragging that he’d managed to make a hundred dollars from bare knuckle fighting. Imagine that! People paying good money for what most sponges give away for free. A hundred dollars for beer and sometimes spirits from the dock workers when merchant boats came to port.

Arguments always started that way. Ross had never been in a fight in his life, and I said as much. It was on account of his condition. Part mental but physical too, his bones weren’t made right. His papa was the same, not strong like most men. It was probably why Ross was, as they say, of the sensitive persuasion.

“Hey, old man,” said Ross, louder this time.

Words were had, fingers pointed, voices raised, and somehow I was out the door and on my way to earn one-hundred dollars. The fight club was on the south side of town near the train tracks. The door was guarded by a wall of muscle. He wore a dog collar and only seven teeth came out of hiding when he smiled.

“You’re early,” he said.

I explained about Ross, of course. I explained about everything. I would have told him my life story if he’d let me. There was something about the wall of muscle that made me want to explain things. And he had that look of someone who needed everything explained.

At the end of my story there was a pause. At first I wasn’t sure if the wall of muscle had understood. “Good luck, old man,” he said, touching his fingers to his head.

It was through that door that I entered another world. The room was dark at first, until my eyes could pierce the gloom and smoke. The room was lined with all sorts of men and some women, all smoking, drinking, and talking. In the middle of the room was a crudely erected boxing ring. Someone had roped off an area and placed two stools in either corner.

The first man I noticed was a guy in a grey suit smoking a cigarette. He wasn’t doing anything in particular just smoking. There was something queer about him. I didn’t notice at first, on account of the gloom, but every so often, a beam of light would shoot out, making droplets of blood on his face and chest glow like gems.

The announcer, the emcee, a bald man with cauliflowers for ears stepped over the rope and cleared his throat. The din quietened. The man in the grey suit stubbed out his cigarette and rushed back to his ring side seat. For some reason, he turned his head towards me and smiled. He shouted out, “Good luck, old man,” as though he knew exactly why I was there. The emcee cleared his throat again and the grey suit turned back.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” called out the emcee. “May I have your attention please. Weighing two-hundred and fifteen pounds, the Bonfire of the Yuletide, the Pagan of the Old Time, I give you the one, the only… Solstice.”

A cheer from the crowd bounced off the walls. Enough to make an old man clasp his heart and die right there! Many hands clapped, including grey suit man, and then the goat entered. A goat! He stood upright on two hooves with long fur covering his thighs. He had the shoulders, arms, and torso of a strong man, with mean eyes staring out from beneath his horns.

“Who will face him? Win or lose, one-hundred dollars awaits any man to prove themselves –”

Were he a man and not a goat then I would have bounded over that rope and taken my licks like any man. Winter was long and one-hundred dollars was a lot of beer. Another look at the horns and I made for the door.

“– in the ring! Who will take that offer?”

My getaway ended with a strong hand clamping my shoulder. He was the man in grey. “You’re early, old man,” he said. He didn’t remove his hand and I didn’t turn around. Nobody gave us any notice. And then he whispered those sweet, sweet words, “$1,000 from me, if you win.”

One-hundred dollars is exactly fifty-two beers and one spirit. At a rate of six peers per night that was not enough to make it through the Winter. But a thousand! One-thousand! One-magical-thousand! One-thousand dollars bought that kind of knockout, drag-down, cold-pack oblivion that a man can only dream of.

I don’t know if I jumped over that rope or floated but two minutes later I shaking hands with the emcee when a bell chimed. The goat bounded out of his corner like a buck in heat. He gave me a taster punch. Not enough to knock me sideways but enough to introduce himself: a boxer’s way of saying hello.

Whatever thousand-dollar hopes I had, sometimes boxing is just physics. I was an old man. I had proof in the way my stomach sagged on every side. My spotted skin was adorned with deep wrinkles. For old men, sometimes a hello punch is also a goodbye.

I hit the mat with an “Umphf”, staggered to my knees, wheezed, then eased my way onto two feet. The goat looked down at me, and I up at him. I thought about the Ross. I thought about the money. I thought about returning to the bar, my head held high.

The crowd was roaring but it wasn’t about that. A goat stood between me and my money. But what could I do? He was a goat, and I a man. His horns looked a hell of a lot larger than they did from outside the rope.

I punched him in the stones.

When two-hundred and fifteen pounds of half-man goat hits the mat, he ‘aint getting up again. “Winner!” hollered the emcee, holding my hand aloft.

They cheered and they hollered. The man in the grey suit gave an approving nod. I had entered the ring an old man but I was leaving a rich old man. The moment called for a comment.

“Nobody messes with Santa!” I shouted.

The crowd went nuts.