by Dan Leach

Coming out of the coffee shop, I spot this grey head not enough in love with his blueberry muffin, not to mention the idea of being there, all existing and free, to nibble it. Forgive me, but I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear another Tuesday, the sky spitting grey rain and the world so at peace with its ugliness.

So I slugged the old sumbitch. I imagined my fist was a chunk of stone and rammed it into the speckled pooch of his face.

“Twenty thousand children will die today of starvation!” I screamed and followed with a left hook that knocked the dentures right out of his mouth. “And then there’s cancer and general loneliness. What the hell is this? Some kind of sick experiment you set in motion and forgot to come back to?”

He shot to his feet and came square to me. The place on his cheek where I’d landed my first punch looked like trampled eggplant, all purplish and rotten. His mouth, a yapping mess of blood and gums, was spewing forth sounds I could not decipher.

“Old fool,” I said and slapped a low-hanging droop of neck skin. “If you want me to listen, speak in something other than bad poetry.”

He picked up his teeth from the floor and wiped them on his pant leg. Smiling, he clicked them back into place.

“You entitled shit!” he croaked and caught me with an uppercut that sent me flying backwards into a table. “Five seconds! Five seconds off the tit and still a greedy, sucking worm!”

Stunned from the uppercut, I composed myself and studied his fists. There they were, all balled up and trembling, looking like two loaded brown bags of walnuts ready to explode. What I wasn’t watching was his legs, one of which flung itself like a nine-pound sledge straight into my crotch.

“You don’t care about those kids and you don’t care about cancer!” the old sumbitch yelled, delivering a hammer-blow to the back of my head while I was doubled over. “You’re a walking open wound. There should be a tattoo on your forehead that reads ‘Validate me!’”

Down on the floor, I thought I had a few seconds to collect myself. I was wrong. The old sumbitch was on me, stomping his boot against my face, stomach, and groin like I was a fire threatening to burn down something he loved.

Some kind of multi-tasker, he continued yelling as he stomped me.

“I interpret you!” he shouted. “Not the other way around!”

“Fear, not books, is the beginning of knowledge!” he said.

And then, after a solid stomp to the spleen: “You and I both know what you’re really after is glory. Glory is the thing! Peace and prosperity are cheap trinkets compared with that!”

He went on like this for a while—stomping peppered with sermons. He went on until I snatched his foot and bit the dook out of his ankle. This elicited a piggish squeal, the sheer volume of which helped me take heart. I laughed. Then, recalling a move from childhood, I rocked on my back like a upturned turtle and delivered some kicks of my own. When I caught him in the soft center of his gut, he reeled back long enough for me to pop up.

He was struggling to catch his breath when I seized him. Gripping him by his neck, I took aim on the hawkish nose, a bony beak nearly the same my father’s. With two consecutive open-palm strikes, I crunched that beak. Blood ran in ropes over his chin, down his neck, and into the pure white cotton of his shirt.

“Come down from your mountain!” I said. “You punched clocks for fifty years and for what? The right to sit here in this coffee shop and judge a muffin unfit? And maybe I am a little curious to see what glory looks like. Can you blame me? The news is a fountain of vitriol and real life isn’t much better.”

“Glory,” sputtered the old sumbitch, choking on his own blood.

An idea occurred to me then. Having noticed that he had two great swathes of grey hair that our brawl had fluffed into gnarled, outflung handlebars, I grabbed them as such and tried something I’d seen in the movies. Heaving my body forward, I wrenched those handlebars and attempted to slam his head into a table. I almost got him, too. But when I yanked him forward, he leaned back, ripping his head free in a single violent jerk. He squealed and clapped both hands over his temples. I looked down at my hands. They were full of grey hairs.

“Isn’t this supposed to mean wisdom?” I said, slinging the two handfuls of hair in his face. “I want to see some of this glory you keep yapping about!”

At this the old sumbitch did a strange thing. Without letting out a single sound, his jaw descended and his mouth stretched into a huge ‘O.’ Like a serpent unhinging its jaw to devour prey, he stayed frozen this pose for several seconds.

“What the–“ I started.

Then, so wild and hard I smelled the blueberries on his breath, he screamed, “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!”

So as to not be outdone, I did the same. Got six inches from his face and screamed, “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!”

My roar was poised to hit its crescendo when the old sumbitch bent his fingers into a fish hook and shoved them in my mouth. I chomped down but was too slow. He had already sunk his hook into the flesh of my cheek and was in the process of dragging me across the room. I had no choice but to follow, my cheek feeling as if at any moment it would be ripped clean from my face.

He hauled me across the room, a sad and futile fish, until we reached the exit, where he attempted to fling me out into the pale morning. And all the time, he was muttering on in some strange tongue. He had almost tossed me out, when, in a desperate last move, I jostled my head until his fingers were fixed beneath my molars. When I say I bit this man’s fingers, I mean I ground his brittle flesh beneath my teeth until the taste of tinny blood filled my mouth. Again came the squeal, this time accompanied by a spastic dance to free his hand.

And yet, no matter how loud he squealed and how violently he tugged, I would not release him. I held on, digging my teeth deeper and deeper into his hand, expecting at any minute to break through the bone and altogether liberate the appendage. Unable to get away, the old sumbitch began grabbing items off nearby tables and breaking them over my head. First he clocked me with a coffee mug, which shattered into pieces but did nothing to lessen my resolve. Then he began clubbing me with a salt shaker, hoping a series of quick blows to the temple would knock me out. They didn’t. I just accepted the dull explosions of pain and bit harder.

When the old sumbitch saw that I wasn’t letting up, he grabbed hold of a nearby chair and smashed it across my hip. Now that one got me. Down I went. All my pain up until then was a faltering punchline compared with this. My hip was on fire and felt knocked loose from its socket. I tried to stand and could not. The old sumbitch started walking away. I seized his leg and held on.

“You’re done,” he said, trying to shake me off. “Now let me go.”

But I replied, “Not until you answer me.”

“Answer you what?”

“Answer me why. Answer me why there’s no glory in this place.”

For the first time since the match began, his blue eyes got all watery, and he looked at me as something other than an adversary. I kept squeezing his leg but looked up at him, feeling confident from that look that he would kneel down and speak to me as a friend.

“What is it that you want, son? That the cup should pass? That I should bless you?”

“Exactly,” I croaked, feeling on the verge of losing consciousness.

For a minute, my request seemed under consideration. The old sumbitch closed his eyes as if in prayer. Then he reached down and removed my wallet from my back pocket. After that he took my phone and the keys to my car. He even took the two dinner mints I’d saved from the night before.

“It is finished,” he said.

The old sumbitch attempted to move his leg, and I released it. He wandered off into the morning, where a tangerine sun was rising. Rising and dying my battered hands amber, bathed as they were with both our bloods.

DAN LEACH’s short fiction can be found in The New Madrid ReviewThe Greensboro Review, and Deep South. His debut collection, Floods and Fires, was released by University Press of North Georgia in 2017. He is an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson.