Night Barges

by Edward Graham

His father was a boxer, one of those semi-professionals on the local circuit who made a name for himself fighting in basements and warehouses and anywhere else private where people could watch desperate humans pummel one another without recourse as they smoked and yelled and passed around crumpled bills. No shirts, bare fists, naked feet bouncing up little clouds of sawdust that had been tossed on the ground to soak up the mess.

People jokingly called him a tomato can and his father would laugh and say it was because he would fall down and spill his thick red soup everywhere. After matches, he’d come home and sit around for a few days drinking until the gauze came off and the wounds had scabbed over and he was well enough to do it all over again.

They lived in an apartment not far from the river, and at night the boy would stare off at the lights from the barges on the twisting blackness while his father snored in the next room and his mother hummed as she stroked his baby sister’s head in the den. He’d spend hours stilly looking out the window, half-knelt on his bed in genuflection. The orbs took on an iridescent quality as they bobbed in the dark expanse, giving off sharp yellows and muted greens and Halloween oranges. There was something in the way they shifted and changed that lapped on the banks of his consciousness, just out of reach, until he’d drift off to sleep.

The secret longing began to permeate his days, as though a core component of his identity was about to be disclosed. He told his dad he wanted to see him fight, that he wanted to be a part of the surge of people rooting and cheering for him as he swung his fists in performative violence. He was old enough, said. He wanted to learn from him, he said, to follow in his footsteps and make a name for himself.

“Don’t waste your time trying to be an understudy in my dream,” His father said, coughing and shaking his bulky head. His sister clawed with fumbling little fingers at his mother’s blouse while she slowly stroked her back.

He stole the spare key and hid it under his mattress. The next time he waited half an hour after his father left before quietly pushing his bike past his parent’s darkened door, deadening the rusty chain with his palm so he wouldn’t wake his sister or his mother as he slipped out.

The fight was at an old factory just outside of town, the dilapidated hulk pressed against the northern bend of the twisting blackness. The factory once made car parts before being used to coordinate the release of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Now it sat empty after the fall of Saigon, the hulking frame buckling inward as the elements wore down its brick facade. The thousands of little square windows along its sides were pockmarked like dead coral on a sickly reef, tense with the grotesque beauty of abandoned industry.

Cutlasses and pickup trucks and other darkened vehicles filled the lot at its side. He left his bike leaning against the open tailgate of a weathered Studebaker Wagonaire that was parked close to the sagging chain link fence that surrounded the factory. Distant voices slipped out through an open metal door, and he followed the sound through the abandoned floor to a room overflowing with the backs of men. Someone pushed a bag of shelled peanuts to his chest and he began to absentmindedly put handfuls of them in his mouth as he pressed forward.

The sour smell of blood and sweat wafted above the crowd of men screaming and frothing around him. He glimpsed four legs dancing in the middle of the mass as he squeezed his way forward through arms and sound, voices suddenly erupting in a cascade of cheers as one set of disembodied legs went horizontal through the dense chain of bodies and were dragged off.

He squeezed forward until he was near the center of the group, stopping suddenly when he saw his father and another man throwing punches. There was a little twinkle in his father’s eyes as they seemed to momentarily dart in his direction and his heart pumped faster for his old man, his pops, his daddy. He yelled out but his voice was lost in the noise and his dad turned his back toward him.

The roar consumed everything beyond the violent spectacle. And yet disparate voices all around him shouted out, angry and pleading and sad, a swarm of private sounds lost in the madness. The pressed bodies took shuffle steps, moving side to side in a pantomime of the boxers pummeling one another, gesturing with their hands and their fists. All of that combined sound and movement built into a mass of ebbing bodies, a cry to the heavens that cracked with the static undercurrent of white noise.

He thought about what it would be like to pluck one of these people from the crowd with all of their private sounds and all of their private movements lost in the sea of bodies and stick them in a library or a museum, to put them on a rotating pedestal for public display. Suddenly they would become forces to behold, grotesque and provoking in their uniqueness. Rarities in another setting, sad and revolting creatures scrutinized for their individual attributes. But maybe they couldn’t exist like that without the crowd, he thought. Maybe all of these people needed the crowd more than the crowd needed all of these people, that all of their private sounds and their private movements remained private simply because they were lost in the sound and the motion and the sheer presence of others.

His father and the other man were like the conductors of great dueling orchestras. A fist to his father’s chest turned the crowd’s noise into a brassy timbre. A hard hook to the sternum and a steady barrage to the man’s stomach knocked him to his knees, and his pops took a brief moment to bask in the percussive sound while the man tried to push himself back on his feet. His father smiled and turned and hit him in the throat, not a tomato can at all but carved sheet metal with jagged edges. The other man staggered back with his fumbling fingers clawing at his neck as his old man loomed over him with his hulking frame, pounding downward with grunting fists until the other man stopped moving and the roar swelled to a crescendo of sound.

He turned and pushed his way through the crowd, the bag of peanuts vanishing in the claustrophobic swarm of vibrating guts and flapping arms that melted into disjointed motion and sound as he located the space in the air cut to his dimensions. He followed his air cut through limbs and the abandoned factory floor and out through the lot filled with darkened vehicles to his bike leaning against the open tailgate of the Wagonaire.

The night silence made him tingle uncontrollably and he knew he had to go, get the blood circulating, once again relocate his air space out here in the open after the momentary lapse of direction. The bike was moving fast and he feared that he was on a path not cut to his form, that he would be obliterated at any moment by the nothingness and everythingness that surrounded him. And yet he was still there, a shape on a bike existing, moving with some purpose that he could not locate. But it was there, he knew it was there somewhere, deep down it had to be or else he wouldn’t still be that boy-shaped form on the bike.

He tasted water in the air, a slightly sour aroma of life and motion that filled him with a strange warmth. The expanse of twisting blackness lay open in front of him now, here and there a glowing orb moving ever so slowly across the gently rippling velveteen canvas of darkness. And then he was flying through the air, the end upon him, the eradication of his physical being. But he found himself on solid ground, body stinging and in pain and yet still here in its fleshy form. The bike wheels were spinning on their sides, the bruised tree root jutting out in front, and still out there the open water and the night barges.

He crawled forward, a soldier advancing towards enemy lines through brush and detritus until he was at the crest of a cut bank. He inched back a bit from the edge, afraid to go over and get swallowed up by the blackness. Out beyond him the night fish swam and the day fish slept and the perpetual motion machine that controlled life revolved around him.

He thought of his home, his little baby sister, his sweet caring mother. If he turned around and stared off into the distance he might be able to make out the intermittent glows coming from his building. But instead he sat for a while above the rippling blackness until the iridescent lights disappeared under the creeping rays from above.