This weekend we have a story from Jared Yates Sexton’s The Hook and the Haymaker. Whether they’re set in a sweat-saturated sparring ring, the backroom of a gas station speakeasy, or in the kitchen of the house down the street, the stories in The Hook and the Haymaker are glimpses into an America that too-often goes unseen. Witness here the untold tales of the losers and the should’ve-beens, the dreamers and the hustlers, all of them just spoiling for their turn at glory or the inevitable one-two punch that puts them down for good.
The simple truth of it is one day I woke up in a house. It was a nice house. Nicer than any house I’d ever lived in before or any I ever thought I’d end up in. I woke up and there was coffee waiting and a good place to sit outside and read and drink that coffee. All of a sudden everything crummy that’d ever happened to me, all those terrible times, they started seeming like they belonged to somebody else, like they were something I’d watched on a bad TV movie.
That’s how I explained it to Trudy. How I tried to explain it, anyway. Every time I started getting into it, every time I’d get her sitting down, she’d just put her hand on mine and tell me not to worry anymore.
You’re safe now, she’d say.
She’d say, You made it.
She was right. Of course she was right. She was right about damn near everything. Health insurance. Loans. What color to paint the bedroom. She was right so much I started forgetting she could ever be wrong. I started thinking maybe she was the one who said let there be light and put together the sun and the stars like a casserole on Sunday.
In balls of cat hair in the corners.
Ants in the sidewalks.
Dreams where I’d wake up and see faces looming over me in the dark.
Calm down, she’d say. There’s nothing there.
But then the ceiling leaked. A big ball grew by the stairs. Drips of water fell down onto the hardwood floors and puddles sprouted out of the cracks.
We’ll call the landlord, she said. Just try and get some rest.
But I couldn’t rest. Maybe I have an illness. I’ve always thought I had an illness. Some kind of cancer or rare new disease that’s not even on the books yet. Sometimes I start thinking about what it’d be like to break a bone and I sit there thinking about it and thinking about it until I feel pressure in the bone and I’m just sure it’s going to snap if I think about it another second more.
I was telling a guy I met at the bar down the street about it. We were sitting at the bar in Mr. Mouse and he was drinking a beer with ice and salt and I just had a beer with some Lexington on the side. I told him and he rolled up his shirt sleeve and showed me a scar.
You see that? he said. Compound fracture. Nineteen-eighty-nine. My woman shoved me off a ladder. Went to break my fall and snap.
That’s awful, I said, already imagining my bone tearing through my skin.
You ever actually break a bone? he asked me.
No, I said. Torn some cartilage. Cracked one or two.
You ever break somebody else’s bone?
I thought about it. Yeah, I said. Buddy of mine. We were going punch-for-punch and his nose broke like a light bulb.
I tell you what, the guy said and threw back his beer, I ain’t gone punch-for-punch in a long ass time.
That’s how we ended up outside on the bar’s porch. We cleared out a space among the tables and traded blows while the other drunks smoked and watched. His first one hit me right in the ear and I lost all sense of hearing for a while. I was thinking about my buddy whose nose I broke and when I hit the guy it was right there on his nose. I heard it crunch and then some blood leaked out.
Pretty good, the guy said and took out his handkerchief. He dabbed up some of the blood and laid it on a nearby table. Somebody had left a glass of liquor there and he took up what was left of it and swallowed it down. It’s not broken though, he said. Do me a favor and break the goddamn thing. Break it to the point it don’t look right anymore.
I shrugged and got to work. When a man asks you to break his nose you don’t have much choice in the matter. With the rules of our game put aside I grabbed his collar and just started pouring in the shots. His nose was making all kinds of sounds and bleeding to beat the band, but for some reason I just couldn’t break it.
He looked at me, bloody, his eyes filled with tears. What the hell? he said. You sure you’ve done this before?
Yeah, I said and gave it another go. I said, I’ll be damned.
We gave up a little bit after that. It didn’t take long to figure out I was incapable of breaking that guy’s nose. I felt like I’d let him down. I felt like I’d let myself down. I paid both of our tabs and hit the sidewalk. All the young kids and drunks walking past me seemed to know what I’d done. They spit at my feet and whispered under their breath.
I got home and worked my key into the door. Trudy was in the kitchen cooking dinner. It was going to be a nice one, roasted chicken, glazed carrots, green beans with ham. She saw me come in and dropped her apron and spoon and rushed up.
Are you okay, love? she said, touching my face.
I’m fine, I told her and moved away. In the refrigerator was a case of my favorite beer. I grabbed one and tried to twist off the cap. It wasn’t a twist-off though and I had to find the can opener in one of the drawers. The drawer was lined with a designer lining. Every fork and spoon and knife was in its place too. The can opener was right where it was supposed to be.
I popped open the bottle and threw the can opener at the wall. It hit with a clunk and tore a little hole in the wallpaper Trudy had bought from JC Penney. I can’t stand this shit, I said.
Trudy looked hurt. What shit? she said. What can you not stand?
This, I said and gestured at everything. The wallpaper. The apron. The dinner cooking on the stove. The forks and the spoons and the knives and the can opener. The lining in the drawers. The beer in the fridge.
At first Trudy looked confused, but soon she sprung into action. She lit into the walls and tore the paper with her fingernails until it was hanging in threads and her nails were bleeding. Next she tossed her apron and the pots and pans into the floor. They were joined by all the utensils and liners and the mess started to grow and the juices from the food leaked out onto the floor and the juice turned dark with the dirt and tarnish and the puddle grew until it was nearly to the baseboards. Next she got the case of my beer out of the fridge and shook it until all of the bottles fell and shattered and the puddle grew with the beer and the juices and stretched from wall to wall. When she finished she stood looking at me, her chest heaving and sweat pouring off her face.
There, she said. Are you happy now?
I looked around. I looked at her. Well, I said, no. For starters, just look at this mess.
–This story was first published in print in [PANK] magazine.