The street lights shined on the metal siding of Harrison Brothers warehouse. During the day fifty men hauled bags of grain and loaded them onto trucks headed west. Danny knew a few people who worked there. He sometimes drank with them at The Rocks. But it was near midnight and the people gathered inside were not there to work. They were there to watch Danny take on a fighter named Rex Harlow out of Great Falls.
Danny couldn’t stomach the fights. Not only were they illegal, but he was being paid to be the fall guy so big ranch owners like Big Carey Burke could get in on the fix and make a ton of money on Danny’s swollen eyes and missing teeth. It had little to do with his pride, he was a single father. The oil boom was over in Minot, so salaries all over town had gone down. And even though he was a damn fine and well respected butcher, he still didn’t have enough money to pay for his daughter’s needs, never mind the rent, the car payment, electric, and food.
Danny’s life hadn’t been an easy one, but he never complained. When his wife Angela died of cancer at the age of twenty-four, he didn’t try to put a gun in his mouth. He had to work. He had to make sure his daughter, Lilly, got all the attention she needed. Everything Lilly did reminded Danny of Angela, especially the way Lilly looked after him. All the hugs in the world that he needed to get through the day. The kisses on the cheek. The drawings she placed on the refrigerator to help make his day better.
The trouble now, more than being the fall guy, or the decreasing wages and hours at work, was coming up with cover stories for his battle wounds. Lying to people at work was easy. He felt he could get away with an accident here or a bullshit lie about hurting his hand fixing his truck. Most people at work didn’t care what Danny did with his free time. They had their own troubles. When times are tough no one wants to hear about the problems another person has. Everyone thinks their problems are far worse. It was lying to his daughter that bothered him. Even though he’d only been in a few fights, she was catching on. A man can only fall down the stairs or get in an accident at work so many times before a child sniffs out the bullshit. In fact, he knew Lilly was much better at sniffing out a lie than most adults. Adults get lost in worlds full of crap. From jobs, to the media, to alcohol, to sex, to rituals. Most adults get lost in a fantasy world. Not the case with children. Everything is black and white. Lilly was no exception, smart like her mother.
He could hear the crowd from inside the warehouse. Chris and Everett Harrison held the fights every few months. They invited all their rich business and ranch friends to bet on the outcome of the fights. No fight was the same. Some were bare knuckles. Some fights were boxing matches, or mixed martial arts. So far Danny had been the designated fall guy for bare knuckles, though he’d been hoping to be involved in some boxing bouts. He was used every few months when new suckers were brought in to bet on the matches. Usually big time spenders from out of state with too much money and nowhere to spend it. Locals like Big Carey Burke knew who Danny was, and dropped a truck load of money every time Danny stepped onto the parquet floor boards and got the shit knocked out of him for however long the Harrison’s and Burke needed him to stand up.
That was the thing with Danny. He was strong in the legs and wide in the shoulders. He was built like a brick shit-house. Years of hauling sides of beef on his shoulders and cutting it in the cold created a machine without emotion. He was numb to everything and everyone since his wife died. It’s what Karl, the dairy manager at Danny’s work and talent scout for the Harrison’s, noticed. Danny came into work every day, put his head down, and worked without mind. There was a lunacy locked inside that made Karl watch him for several weeks before inviting him out for a night of beers. Karl wanted his story, and after several pints and a few shots of Black Velvet, Danny opened up about his daughter and the death of his wife. How times were tough both money-wise and being a single parent. Karl fed on it and offered him one thousand dollars to take the fall in the second round the following week in a six round bare knuckles fight. If the other fighter was pussy footing or dancing too much, Danny would have to punch the guy and make him mad enough to land one square on Danny’s chin. “It has to look like the real thing,” Karl told him.
Floyd Brown danced all over the floor surrounded by fifty or more dentists, doctors, business men, restaurant owners, and ranch owners. Danny leaned in and popped Brown in the mouth. It felt great for a moment, like all his frustrations went from brain, to shoulder, to wrist, to knuckle and right into Brown’s mouth. The fighter leaned back, touched his bleeding mouth, cocked his head, and let Danny have it, knocking two teeth out of his mouth. A stream of blood shot out and painted the makeshift ropes. The next morning he told his first lie to his beautiful Lilly, but the rent would be paid for two months. He was more than willing to take Vicodin and tell a few lies at work if some of the stress was off his back.
Two men opened the side door to Harrison’s and put a fighter in the back seat of a car. Danny couldn’t see his face, but did catch a glimpse of the man’s limp body. A man knocked on the top of the roof when the back door was shut, then the driver drove off. Danny lit a cigarette. He’d quit smoking for a few years until the fights made him start up again. He leaned back in the seat of his car and tried to relax his body. His Lilly was safe with the babysitter for the night and he didn’t have to work the next day. Twenty-four hours was plenty of time to see a doctor or ice the face long enough to take some swelling down. What it really was, however, was enough time for him to think of a new lie to tell both his daughter and work. For a second the question “What are you doing, Danny?” slipped into his head. “You don’t need to be doing this. What if Rex Harlow knocks the shit out of you? What if it’s you they drag to the back seat of a car? Did they take that poor bastard to a hospital? Or did they drop him in a ditch somewhere out in the flats near Max? Bury him deep enough so no one would ever find him? All so rich people can make big bucks off poor suckers like me.”
A knock rattled the truck window. It was Karl. “You ready, Danny?” He noticed Karl’s handlebar mustache, Chicago Cubs cap, and leather jacket with a bright red and yellow Acapulco shirt underneath. He snapped out of himself and rolled down the window.
“Here you go, buddy,” Karl said, handing him the yellow envelope containing Danny’s money. He looked inside, locked up the envelope in the glove box, flicked the smoke over Karl’s head, and opened the door.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Danny said.
“Okay you ready for it?”
“This Harlow kid ain’t no joke. Quick as lightning, fists like steel.”
“As a cashier who wants a steak but can only afford noodles.”
“What’s the round?”
“Third. You need to stand strong until the third. Think you can do it?”
“I’ll get through it somehow.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Karl said, slapping Danny on the back. “Big Burke brought in some of his ranch buddies from Texas, so there will be a shit ton of cash swapping hands tonight. Burke told ’em you were the real deal. The champ of North Dakota.”
“I hate bare knuckles, Karl. Getting harder to recover. Think we can get some gloves next time?”
“Shit, man. Most everyone comes here for the blood. Nothing a rich asshole likes more than watching a few broke assholes beating each other up for soup money. Gloves don’t drop enough pints on the floor.”
“Oh, yah. I get it, but I need some more money. It’s getting harder to cover up with the lies.”
“You need more Vicodin? I got tons of it, always free for you.”
“It’s not the Vicodin, Karl. It’s the lying to the kid. Fuck work, I’ll lie to them all day for five bucks. But I hate lying to the kid.”
“You win Big Burke, the Harrisons, and few other of these assholes some cash, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Danny nodded at Karl. He trusted Karl enough. “Go get yourself ready,” Karl said. “I’ll be right in.”
Karl pulled an ass pocket of whiskey from his inner pocket, burned his mouth with a big swill, and started to screw the cap back on. “Go get ’em, Butcher,” he laughed. He watched Danny walk into the warehouse and stamped his cigarette into the dirt road. Something heavy set in Karl’s knee when he twisted the butt into the dirt. He narrowed his eyes and started for the door.
Rex Harlow’s body was lean and muscular. He looked like a prize fighter on his way to the top. Harlow shook his shoulders and scuffed his cowboy boots on the floor. He stared Danny down. Looked over Danny’s reddish hair and pale skin. Harlow noticed that Danny had trouble rotating his jaw.
Danny looked at the men exchanging money. Big Carey Burke stared at him like a proud son. Danny knew he was looking at him because he was going to make a big payday for a select few. All the idiots who had flown in from Houston, Boise, and Lincoln, or wherever, had no idea they were going to get robbed. Everett Harrison leaned in to Burke’s ear and whispered something. Danny imagined it was news that he was going to take a fall in the third.
A man with a comb-over, mustache, and red polo shirt entered the makeshift ring and stood between the fighters. It was the same thing every fight: No punching in the balls was the only rule in a bare knuckle fight. Each round would go two full minutes, then when the old bastard, Jack, hit the bell, the fighters had 15 seconds to gather their thoughts in a corner. There were no trainers, no spit buckets, and no doctors.
The Comb-Over brought the two fighters together. Danny was dressed in his jeans and a t-shirt. Rex had taken his shirt off and it looked to him that Harlow had greased his chest up with Vaseline. Danny raised his taped knuckles in a fighting stance. It wasn’t professional, but the kind a child would use in the school yard to confront a bully. Harlow smiled at him without raising a fist. The Comb-Over dropped his hand between the two fighters and quickly left the ring. Harlow brought his fists up to his chin and stood still. Danny danced around Harlow.
In the crowd Karl shouted, “Knock the shit out of that peckerwood, Danny!”
Danny stopped dancing for a moment and wondered how much Karl was making off of his blood? He wasn’t ever in the ring fighting, and all Danny got was one thousand every time Burke and the Harrisons brought in new suckers.
Mid-thought, it felt like a hunk of steel drove into the side of his head. Harlow caught him not looking. The daze spun Danny around the room, the bone below his eye felt cracked. He glanced at Burke, whose face went from proud looking father, to a father who was ready to beat his child for stealing. Karl stood up, afraid, when Danny took a hard uppercut to the chin, knocking him back several steps into the ropes. He knew at an instant something wasn’t right with his jaw. Harlow inched closer. He was looking for the kill shot. Jack hit the bell, and Danny dragged himself to the side of the ring.
“You gotta go two more, asshole,” Karl said in his ear. “Don’t fuck this up, you hear me?”
Danny looked up, broken. He knew what Karl meant. He knew if he fucked up the fight there’d be hell to pay with Burke.
“A lot of money riding on you, you hear me?” Karl said. He could hear Karl’s teeth grinding.
He raised his taped hand and gave Karl an everything will be alright tap. Karl walked back to his seat and spoke to Burke. Danny couldn’t hear any of it through the bloody and drunken cheers of the crowd. Danny was built up by Burke, supposedly his prized champion, a majority of the business men took Burke’s advice and put thousands on Danny. His poor performance is why beer cans were thrown at him. Why curse words were shouted. Jack hit the bell for round two.
He had no idea how he was going to make it through another round with Harlow. The kid was made of iron. Danny was a butcher at a grocery store living on borrowed time. He thought of Lilly. His beautiful Lilly. His heart. He wanted her to have everything, to be so much more than what he turned out to be. In his head he pictured her beautiful face smiling at him. He could hear her call him “Daddy.” It meant more to him than his own life. He stood tall to Harlow, and Harlow came in with a right. Danny avoided it. He heard the powerful wind rush by his head. Danny felt he could make it. He danced and avoided several more of Harlow’s punches. A busted jaw and broken facial bone wasn’t going to stop him from putting food on the table. The crowd cheered. Spit and sweat leaked from their rich faces. Karl stood up and cheered. Big Burke and the Harrisons smiled. The fix was going to work.
But the cheers quickly turned to a slew of “fucks,” “damn,” and “bum” when Harlow hit him in the stomach so hard he collapsed to the floor. For good measure, Harlow stomped his ribs with the heel of his shit-kickers. The Comb-Over jumped into the ring and started to count. Danny looked at the blood pouring from his mouth and onto his hands. It brought him back to growing up on his father’s farm outside Burlington. His father was a hard worker and always talked to anyone with a roaring laugh. He recalled one summer morning when the scent of sunflower was in the air. His father didn’t say a word to him or his mother, unusual. It sounded like a bomb went off in the middle of one of their fields. Danny’s hands were soaked in blood moments later, after he picked up his father’s jaw, several feet away from the shotgun his father used to blow his brains out.
The Comb-Over made it to “six” when Danny used every last bit of energy he had to pull himself up off the floor. He didn’t want his child to grow up like he did, with no father. Or even worse, a father buried somewhere out in the flats because Big Burke put one behind his ear. Harlow looked amazed that Danny had the courage to get up. He looked over and saw Karl smiling. Big Burke and the Harrisons tried to hide their excitement. Jack hit the bell.
Danny fell in to his corner as Karl raced up. “You did it,” he whispered to Danny.
“Why does it matter? I’m beat to shit. I can’t do this anymore.”
“You have heart and grit, that counts. You just made Big Burke and the Harrisons a shit load of money. They won’t forget it.”
“I wanna talk to Burke after.”
“Why? He can’t be seen talking to you.”
“Do it!” Danny said. “Grain mills in Max. One hour after the fight.”
Jack hit the bell and the two men went back in. It was the third round so he leaned in, hit Harlow a few times in the gut, then dropped his fists. Rex landed the kill shot and Danny hit the floor. His face was covered in blood and pulp on the outside. Inside, he knew he had successfully paid the rent for another two months. He let the Comb-Over count him out. Then came the beer cans and lit cigars thrown at him from outside the ring. Inside he felt twisted, yet alive. The suckers moaned to Big Burke about Danny being a champ. “Nothing but a fucking chump, Carey. Next time bring in a real fighter.” But the rich men really didn’t care about losing money, they had plenty of it. What they cared about was how much blood was spilled. They’d be willing to lose a truck load of money time and time again, if it meant watching a poor shithole come close to dying before their eyes.
Burke’s enormous Chevy pick-up was parked next to Everett Harrison’s Cadillac when Danny pulled up to the meeting spot next to the Max Grain Mills. Danny got out of his truck and limped over to them. Big Burke got out of his pick-up, all three hundred pounds of fat and beard swung over his belt buckle. He could see the angry outline of Burke’s black Stetson in the headlights.
“You got something to say. Say it now and be done with it,” Burke said.
Danny looked at Karl get out of Everett’s back seat and stand with Burke and The Harrisons as if he was part of the syndicate.
“You want me to do this every few months, then I want a bigger cut,” Danny said, his aching jaw needed medical attention.
“That it?” Burke asked.
“I make a lot for you guys, figure I should get more.”
“Uff Da!” Burke shouted. “All that money we give you ain’t enough to take a beating? Figure a man in your position with a kid, rent and a dead wife…”
“Don’t go talking about my wife,” Danny replied.
“Boy, I’ll talk about whomever, whenever, I want. Don’t you forget who you are talking to.”
“I gotta explain shit to people I work with and my kid. You got family, don’t you?”
“Three boys,” Burke replied.
“Then you get it.”
“Like I said, you get five large to take a fall. Now you got us out here in shit hole Max complaining about money.”
“Screw this guy,” Everett interrupted. “If he wants to be ungrateful let’s be done with it and put him in the ground near Ferry’s Butte.”
“Hold on,” Danny said. “You say five large?”
Danny looked at Karl. He didn’t move from his position next to the Harrison’s car. If he wasn’t banged up and in need of a doctor, he’d leap over them and strangle Karl. He’d been robbing him for months.
“Oh, yah,” Burke said. “Five large ain’t good enough for a man in your position?”
“Why don’t you talk to your man over there. He’s been giving me one thou per fall.”
Burke pulled up his size 42 Wranglers and looked over at Karl and shook his head in disgust.
“I guess that’s between you and him,” Burke said. “We done here?”
“I ain’t fighting for you anymore, you hear?”
“Three months. Got a fighter out of Minneapolis coming in. You be ready.”
“Did you not fucking hear me? I ain’t fighting for you no more.”
“Yes, you will. Or your ass is going to turn miserable and quick,” Burke replied.
“To hell with you, Burke,” Danny replied.
“Don’t you walk away from me!”
Danny crawled into the cab of his truck clenching his ribs and shut the door. Before he could turn the key, Burke’s scarred and bearded face was in the driver’s side window.
“You will fight for me again, or…” Burke threatened.
“Or what?” Danny asked.
“Or something might happen to your job. In fact, I can make sure you never get a job in this county again. I’ll have Dutchie Selby put your name on the ex-con list. See who will hire you then.”
“Whatever you say. I’m going home.”
“What if something should happen to your daughter?”
Danny’s face was covered in an angry blood. The same angry blood on his father’s lifeless face. His dad’s eyes went angry after he put the shotgun under his chin. It was as if he killed himself in the perfect stillness of a bitter world.
“You even come within ten feet of her, I swear…” Danny said.
“Or you’ll what?”
“I’ll stick a fucking cleaver in your head, end of story.”
Burke laughed, but respected Danny for not only having the balls to stand up to him, but for his sense of family.
“Okay, Butcher,” he said in disgust. “I’ll personally hand you the five large for the next fight.”
“I want the four from each of the other fights added to it. That’s twelve grand plus the five. Then we’re even.”
Burke looked over at Karl again and grinned. Karl looked down and kicked dirt around the wheels of Everett’s Cadillac.
“Alright. In fact, I’ll make good now.” Burke reached into his leather vest and pulled out an envelope.
“There’s almost four large in there, consider it a down payment.”
He thumbed through the cash and nodded yes to Burke.
Danny started the engine and pulled away. When he stopped right before turning onto the interstate, he looked back and watched Big Burke slap the hat off of Karl’s head. It didn’t bother Danny one way or the other what happened to Karl. Not with his face resembling the carcass he cut up every morning. Karl had been ripping him off for months. Not to say Karl was all at fault. Today a man has to make his money somehow, and sometimes it’s playing your friends for fools, while others took the blows until they couldn’t stand any longer, until they collapsed in their own sweat and filth, and landed on top of their own broken lives, exhausted. Waiting for the day that hope or love would exhume them from a path chosen.
He looked in the rearview mirror again. His eyes were caked in dried blood. Pain shot through his jaw, and his face was swollen. He picked up his cell and told the babysitter he’d be late. There was an accident and he had been in a fight at the bar. He told her not to not wake up Lilly, he’d be fine and only needed to get some stitches at Trinity Hospital. The sitter’s tone had some fleeting concern pass through her voice. He dropped the phone and took a long look at his swollen right knuckles. He could barely make a fist. He’d probably miss work for the next few weeks, but the money he had just earned made it possible. He turned left onto the interstate and pulled away from Max towards Trinity Hospital, twenty miles away.
The next few weeks Danny drove Lilly to school every morning and picked her up when she was finished. He took her to dinner and a movie almost every night. It was the best time he’d had since his wife had died. And even though he suffered a fractured hand and cracked ribs, he was happy to know his jaw was not broken. The doctors tried to get him to stay in the hospital for a few days, but he signed himself out against orders.
“When do you go back to work?” Lilly asked.
“Going back today.”
“Will the sitter be coming to get me today?”
“Yup, but I’ll be home at five.”
“You know, kid, I think I’m done with playing darts for a while.”
The way Lilly smiled reminded him of Angela. They looked a lot alike, especially the small things. Like the way she talked, or the way Lilly would tilt her head to the side when listening to someone. Even though he knew it all along, it hit him, maybe there were some things worth taking a beating for.
“I drew you this picture last night,” she said, handing him a drawing before getting out of the car.
He drove around the corner and stopped. It was a giant picture of a sunflower. On either side of the sunflower was a drawing of herself and him. He smelled the sunflower in the air and the sound of a shotgun passed through his mind. Terrified, he folded the drawing and put it inside the glove box before everything inside of him poured out of his eyes. He knew he had to keep the anger, disgust, and rage inside of him. It was the only way he’d ever be able to look at himself without feeling like vomiting the next time Burke called on him to fight.
The world wants to clip men’s nuts and turn them into something delicate and emotional, and Danny hated it. He didn’t disagree that every man deserved love, laughter, and family. But let men be what they are, which in his world was either a mad-dog or a hunter. He didn’t grow up in a world where men practiced yoga. He didn’t agree with men who went to therapy sessions and confessed their feelings. And though he knew the world was changing in this direction, he’d be damned if he was going to be a casualty of the softness war. Keeping it locked up inside was all he had.
Danny’s first day back was much like any other day. A lot of cutting with his head down. Mind locked in thoughts of his wife, and when and if Burke would call him. He didn’t see Karl, and it slipped his mind that Karl even existed, until the store manager, a castrated guy named Gus asked him if he’d seen or heard from Karl the last few weeks.
“We called for over a week,” Gus said, “but haven’t heard from him. Figured he quit.”
“Can’t say I’ve heard from him either.”
“You guys were friends, yah?”
“Wouldn’t say we were exactly friends,” Danny replied.
“Well, either way he’s out of a job. Kenny Harper is the new dairy manager.”
“Kenny is good people. Hard worker. You did the right thing.”
“He’ll work out fine,” Gus replied.
Danny realized he’d messed up a few ribeyes in the process of talking.
“Come to think about it,” Danny said. “He mentioned he wasn’t happy with his salary a few months back. Said something about ‘pays better to be a crook in today’s economy.’ Can’t say if that had anything to do with it.”
Gus watched him toss the ruined ribeyes into a bucket labeled “Ground Sirloin”.
“That’ll get you nowhere,” Gus replied. “Hard work, honesty, and dedication is what pays off in the end.”
Danny rolled his eyes on the inside.
“You betcha, Gus,” he said.
“I’ll let you get back to work,” Gus said. “Good to have you back Danny.”
Gus raised his skinny arms and jabbed the air.
“Just gotta keep away from those bar fights,” he said with an annoying laugh that bounced through Danny’s skull like a ricocheting bullet.
Danny lit a cigarette and leaned against the door of his truck after the work day was over. It was eighty degrees out and the sun felt good on his face. He liked the way the smoke rings choked a ray of light that beamed through the window as if something holy was about to take place. Angela used to tell him they needed to move far away from Minot. Some place down south in the mountains, like North Carolina. He liked the idea of buying a little place in the Appalachians. Working and living off the land. A little town below the mountain with a school for Lilly. It passed through his mind maybe he should do that, but then he almost laughed out loud when he realized it was hard enough paying the rent, never mind moving.
He opened the door and hopped into the cab. He’d have to settle for a six pack of Schlitz, the broken back porch, and watching his daughter blow bubbles with the gallon jug he’d bought her the other day. “It’ll have to make due,” he thought. He turned the key and when he threw his right arm on the seat to look over his shoulder and back out, he noticed the hat on the passenger’s side floor. It was a Cubs cap. Old and beat up like the one Karl wore. He put the car in park and grabbed the cap, and underneath it was an envelope. He grabbed it and looked inside. It contained the rest of the money Karl owed him. The ray of light blinded him for a second, but when he went to put the envelope in the glove box with Lilly’s art work, he could see the penciled words written on the envelope: “Two months, Butcher.”