Slip Jig

by Katrina Carrasco

Chicago, 1875.

Two minutes to fight time. Tom slaps my face, my upper arms, the thin flesh stretched over the muscles of my sides. Come on, now, he says. Come on, now. His clockwork beating calls out my sweat. Around us is the roar of the ring, a choppy breeze born of unwashed arms, ale breath, rattled money. Come on, now.

Fifty men size me up: Dark head, smallish. Wiry forearms. Filthy flannel undershirt loose on an underfed belly. Coal-smudged skin stoked by Tom’s blows.

Bet against me, I shout, in my head where I am already ducking and jabbing and bleeding from the eyes. Bet against me, you bastards.

 – Striker Sloan took home two hundred dollars last month – That was at Chain Locker, not the local knock-up – You don’t think I can do it – You’re too fucking small and that’s the least of your worries – Got to start somewhere, put up your guard –

Come on, now.

Across the dirt ring is the boy I aim to flatten. He tops me by a few inches. A black sash is tied around his hips. Lantern shine dribbles down his chest. Wilted bruises mark his cheek and one side of his long, fine nose, and it’s the nose that makes me hitch a little, the red-eyed growler in my head stumbling. I don’t want to break that nose. It’s a beauty.

Tom slaps me in the face and I flinch.

He stops, mouth open, hand midair. Faltering as I faltered. His skin on the line as much as mine if I misstep. I bury my lust and bare my teeth.

“Don’t go soft on me,” I say, voice shoveled full of gravel.

Tom grins. Flips his palm. His backhand leaves my teeth salty with blood.

 – What are you going to do if this comes loose – It won’t come loose, here hold the edge – Not many men keep on a shirt – Are you helping me or not, Tom, because God damn it – Oh, turn around, dirty up your face –

The referee calls us forward. I breathe big to push my ribs against the binding on my chest, testing it for give. When it shifts a fraction I panic, silent, my throat contracting. But there are six pins. Six pins will hold. By clamping on to that thought I can swallow and step forward. My boots crunch in the pebble-thick dirt.

“Odds at seven to three,” Tom whispers, heated breath on my heated neck, and then I step out of the corner and there’s nothing behind me but shouting. I’m used to sailing above the crowd, not drowning under it. But I’m in the deep water now.

“Lightweights,” the referee says. “Hooper in black, Camp in yellow. Last bets in.”

The boy has moth-gray eyes: his gaze flicks over me in a hundred twitching wings that lift the small hairs on my arms and neck. I spit at the ground. Watch the slip jig of his boot soles as he half-dances, caught up just as I am in the pounding anthem of the spectators: wreck him, boy-o! snuff that runt! oh aye!

“Up to the scratch,” the referee tells us, one hand rough against my pulse.

Slipslip go the boy’s feet and my fists are shaping into sailors’ knots of bone. My own feet are steady on the line. I hold the dancing inside, until I itch with it and the hunger to strike.

“Wait for it – ”

Then the bell! Oh glory! The boy surges forward and throws a narrow blow. I tilt, half-turn as his knuckles glaze matchstrike fast over my ribcage and there! My fist bounces off the elastic bowl of his belly. He wheezes. Quick, while he’s sagging: ear, throat, then jawline – the crowd howls and I am an ecstasy magnet, yanking toward me all the hot filings of their eyes.

The boy levers upright, hands heaving off knees. We trace the outer furrows of the ring. Size each other up once more now that we’ve knocked good evening. He flexes his right hand as he moves, a slow furl and blossom of dirty fingers. Two lungfuls of smoke, then I lower my head. Cross the dirt. His first swing is wide – a distraction for the second, which comes lower than I expect. I skip backward but there’s a thumpcrush in my ribs. Oh, Jesus. My wild uppercut catches nothing but air. He slip-slips away, growing broader as he absorbs the incandescence of the crowd. A lifting grin shows tobacco-laced teeth, and there’s his nose again, marking him as handsome when I need him to be marked as enemy.

Guard up, joints loosened, I hiccup down the blackribburning and lean away from the pain clot in my side. Play unsteady. Here’s a fine line to tightrope: performing weakness while also performing toughness. At this I am a professional, though I dwell on the other side of the coin (flip back, head over tail, dangle by one arm while laced tight with satins, a woman-shaped bauble). Here in the ring I am whittled down. Hot pith and growl, wrapped in Tom’s dirty shirt. I shuffle sideways.

 – When I was new in the troupe I wanted to do a musical number in one of Johnny’s suits, like I’d seen in a newsprint – Johnny’s about your size – But Boss told me no, and put me on the trapeze, saying arms like that – Drop your voice a notch, it’s still too high – How’s this – Keep talking – It was a good thing he did set me on the swing, because I can’t sing worth a damn – You’ve got a nasty right hook, though – I’m counting on it –

The boy advances, working up speed in three paces. I take his first jab in the meat of my right shoulder and duck forward, coming up inside the curl of his arm. His winged eyes flutter in surprise. He punches at the tender bend in my ribcage but I am in too close. Twist from the hips. My aim is true. His nose buckles under my knuckles and I’ve smashed the pretty thing standing between us, his fineness like a shattered crystal pane that I burst through to fall on him in a frenzy. The flat backs of my fingers stamp into his skin: into the give of his chest, the stringy gristle of his neck, the thin bands of bone over his liver. The crowd rages, shaking the rails, all aboil.

Mary mother of God don’t let them unmask me – but there is no time for thoughts like that, fear like that, only time to keep pummeling, hard, hard, hard, a sweat-oiled open-mouthed machine.

The boy’s hand is tangled in my shorn hair but he sags against me. His sweat smells of sour butter. The sand at our feet is pocked with blood. When I look down my supper creeps up the back of my throat, so I tip my head to gulp air and jab my elbow into his chest.

He drops to his knees. Thank Christ. My wet fingers slip off his wet forearm. I wipe my face with the yellow sash and return to the corner, where Tom props his leg into a bench. His muscles are steady, strong under me. He lifts a nip of whiskey.

“Drink up, Jack,” he says, and I like his liquid amber eyes on mine.

 – Boss will blow his top if you turn up covered in bruises – I’ll tell him I fell trying a new routine – Fell right on your face – It happens – Just win the damn fight, if I have to drag you out I don’t know – I didn’t go through all this trouble just to lose – Why are you doing this – Let me finish your cigarette – Alm – No, I’m Jack, now, until we’re home again – Will you stay Jack for a little while after that –

Whiskey downed, I hop off Tom’s knee. Shake my arms loose. Settle. Across the ring the boy shifts from foot to foot, not as tired as he seemed. But my six pins are holding fast. I have swaggered into this forbidden world, into its seedy pulp and smoke and roaring, and as long as I can keep my feet I can stay. Tonight I’m Jack Camp, rabid underdog. Tonight I’ve got it all on the line, because I won’t exist tomorrow. So bet against me, you bastards. Come on, now.

And the bell jangles!separatorKatrina Carrasco is a graduate student in the Portland State University MFA Fiction program. Her short story “Cutthroat” won third place in the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014 competition, and she has an upcoming piece in Quaint Magazine. Katrina has completed two historical novels set in Oregon and Northern California, and is working on a third that takes place in Port Townsend, Washington.