Laughter of Strangers: An Excerpt

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An excerpt by Michael J. Seidlinger.

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THE LAUGHTER I HEAR

I can take a punch. That used to be the problem. 12 rounds without so much as a knockdown, or getting numb at the knees, tends to bore the audience. It bore right into the audience’s attention span, splitting it in half. I gave them 10 seconds at the start of my career. At best one of my fights rendered them 5.

5 seconds.

If I don’t make it count, they watch the other guy, who does everything I do, but maybe a little bit better. If you asked me, I’d agree:

 

ACCURATE STATEMENT

 

But, yeah, I can take a punch. The problem then is when I start to feel those hooks to the body, the punches right against my shoulders. I shouldn’t feel those; I am conditioned to embrace the impact and go searching with the jab, jab, jab, jab, even if they only end up hitting air, jab, jab, waiting for the moment I can launch a power shot left right where it counts.

If I can take a punch, they can take a punch.

 

IT STILL HURTS

 

I give them my best and at the very least they might take a step back, shake off the hook, the uppercut to the chin.

Maybe a knockdown, 4 count, if I’m lucky.

If it’s me that’s hitting the canvas, it takes me 3 just to get my old tired ass off the ground, another 4 to get up to my feet. The referees with their endless commentaries –

“Are you okay?!”

“Can you see me?!”
“Look into my eyes?!”

“Follow my nose!”

Does very little to reassure me.

How many times have I hit the canvas at the expense of myself but to bolster what this is, the betterment of the brand?

 

ARE YOU ASKING?

 

Lately it’s been a lot.

So what I’m saying is –

 

I COULD TAKE A PUNCH

 

Nowadays every punch feels like glass cutting skin, earth quaking up my spine, calling me collect, telling me to stay down.

 

END IT NOW

 

I’ve got a few fights left in me, thank you.

Thank you everyone, my would-be fans, people that used to bet their holiday bonuses on me, the penultimate of the name everyone couldn’t help but stop and watch whenever we fought.

 

“SUGAR” WILLEM FLOURES

 

That’s a name I built from the ground up. I wasn’t the first to systematically climb the ranks, beating the sugar out of everyone I had known to be inferior, leaving only the sour taste of defeat, my claim forever being:

“I am the greatest!”

I can still hear it now. In the silence of this locker room, blood drying on my face, I can still hear those words.

And I was. I was the greatest.

 

IS

WAS

WILL BE

TWO OF THESE SIMPLY WILL NOT DO

 

But the most appropriate might be the least flattering. Past tense.

I was “Sugar” Willem Floures.

I had mastered it all, the ins and outs of what I could do to beat myself up. I had everything under control. My demons, my weaknesses, my vices, my tendency to lose track of time, all of it was under control.

I could take it on at a second’s notice, some wide-eyed newcomer thinking he’s got it all down, what it means to be me, calling me out, challenging me like this is some game and not the sweet science, but you know what? I always did. I fought cold, straight, no training. I used to be able to see every single punch, bob, weave, flick of the cheek, squint of the eye, long before they’d ever register.

Now, this blood as evidence of my defeat, they see the very same in me.

 

I USED TO BE ABLE TO TAKE A PUNCH

 

I have never been able to take defeat. And when I didn’t see that punch coming, I swallowed the blood alongside the painful realization that maybe, just maybe, I forgot what it means to fight.

 

I AM FORGETTING MYSELF

 

How difficult it is to climb to your feet when rocked, stunned, trying to beat the ten count only to go back to doing your best not to be beaten to the punch yet again by someone thinking they’ve got it right, me, everything from strategy to street cred.

I hate the way it feels, a trickle of blood slowly dripping down your forehead. I thought the wound had healed. Guess not.

Wipe it away quick enough to feel the warm liquid grow cold.

It is starting to swell up.

The welt will be big enough to be unforgettable.

Spencer is going to take a picture of it. I know he is.

He’ll never let it go, this loss. My first loss in the last 5 fights.

What he doesn’t understand is how hard I fought only to barely win by decision. When you win you always remember the cheers of the audience; when you lose you try your damnedest to erase the sneers and laughter they send in your direction. No one is able to completely remove the mark a loss leaves on your psyche much less the scars that show in the faintest of light.

I used to be able to take a punch, now all I seem to do is take on losses.

 

FIGHT RECORD

 

Okay, look, let me say something about my record. Don’t think I’m narcissistic because I am not (at least I don’t think I am). I have a good record.

You can say that “Ironman” did well to spread the Floures name with his attempted suicide and bout with depression, one of the biggest national stories in recent sports history, but I was the one Williem Floures that created this whole league, made it so that the name Floures is synonymous with combat, with boxing.

 

52 WINS

 

Might as well be a fine wine because thinking about it makes me feel all warm and buzzed.

 

12 BY KO

 

I managed that not because they couldn’t take a punch – they can take a punch as well as I can – but because of wearing them down first with the jab. Like Spencer always said, lead with the jab, smother with the jab, and wait for the opening. Land as close to the temple or as snugly under the chin and rock that brain, send them to the canvas, watch them dance their way to defeat. I waited them out, knowing that I’d get impatient.

“Fight like you are not who you are and that’ll keep them on their toes.”

 

WISE WORDS

 

Spencer, my trainer and agent, I couldn’t have amassed the record without his guidance. He’s right though –

I know how they’ll fight just like they’ll know how I’ll fight.

They know what I’m thinking.

I know what they are thinking.

We are alike because we are alike.

So to win, to be the best, I can’t be myself.

I must fight like I’m someone else, like I don’t know what I’m doing.

Worked for the majority of my wins, not so much for the 4 losses.

But I don’t like to talk about that. Means Spencer always talks about it. Means it’s something that I should do because I wouldn’t normally do it myself. Go against the grain, the expected.

 

4 LOSSES

 

Not so bad.

 

MAKE IT 5

 

Still not bad.

 

IT IS BAD

I’M JUST NOT GOING TO ADMIT IT UNTIL I HAVE TO

 

Here’s the rationalization that works best:

It benefits one it benefits all. Younger throws the shot and I, the older, takes it. I hit the canvas. I taste copper. Sure, sure, I look bad but it’s getting better. The audience gets a knockdown. We both get purse money.

He’ll go out after this, night on the town, while I go to the emergency room, welts the size of a second head swelling from the side of my face.

That’s my rationalization and I’m going to stick to it.

I’m going to keep applying pressure to the wound on my forehead and I’m not going to look in any mirrors.

I don’t want to see what I look like.

I can feel the welt on the side of my face throbbing. It must be the size of a baseball. I can get past most of the loss but it’s what they do to drain the welt that I associate most with my current situation.

Proof that I’m not a narcissist:

 

I ADMIT IT

 

I admit it, okay?

I admit that I’m getting old.

I should think about retiring. I really should.

If I do, that means… it means the worst for what I wanted out of this life. You step aside. Retirement is about as punishing an act as it sounds; you retire all cred; you are incapable of climbing into the ring, between the ropes, never again able to wear the gloves, bite deep into the mouth guard, stare yourself down across the ring, fighting not only yourself but everything you don’t see boiling to the surface.

No matter what their alias might be, they are all me.

We are all alike.

And no one will take the place of “Sugar” Willem Floures.

If I retired, though, how would I be able to protect my record? My legacy? My name? This brand? Can they really have the brand in their best interests? It’s too easy to be forgotten in this world.

 

BRAND AWARENESS

 

Willem Floures is synonymous with the sport.

However, it might not be in a few short years.

There are plenty of other names fighting, all of them trying to book the same stadiums, secure the same Pay Per View slots, that Floures has successfully achieved in the four and a half decades of fight that I’ve championed. All of us in the league, we fight each other as much as we fight the world. The world might not care for much longer. That’s what bleeds the most, hurts the deepest: The thought that every punch landed, every punch absorbed, every scar carved into my skin, will be as insignificant as the dead buried six feet under, aging stone slabs the only real remembrance, their only real legacy.

 

I AM AFRAID OF IT

 

What I worry most is that my time in the ring I passing, slipping from my grip.

 

THE LAUGHTER

 

Looking back all I hear is laughter. All I see is white. All I taste is the ache of my bleeding mouth, tongue numb, my eyes wanting so very much to roll back, have a look at the inside of my broken skull.

Looking ahead, all I hear is Spencer.

“Before I send you to the hospital to lick those poor little wounds of yours, we have to go through this!”

Just his way: tough, stern, uncompromising.

I can barely sit up straight but he’s throwing a screen in my face, pointing at the fight footage fresh from the feed.

I always wonder how Spencer can afford every little new gadget in the world but then again I forget that Floures is a moneymaker of a name.

Haven’t spent a dime myself, but that’s because I’m not in this for the money. I’m in this for—

Well if I said it I wouldn’t believe it.

People step in the ring to fight themselves.

That’s the plain truth. No doubt about it.

“Round 2 you got it all wrong! What the hell were you thinking?! Did you not hear me say duck the left hook? “Executioner” uses the left hook as much as you fucking did back when you were 10 fights into your career. How could you forget?!”

That’s another problem:

 

FORGETTING

 

My memory. It’s not what it used to be. I have a lot of bad habits, many of them I have no recollection of and it probably makes me look horrible.

I apologize as much as I thank the fans.

“Left hook, left hook, left hook! Round 5 you’re all over the place!”

Spencer pauses the footage and points to where I stick my chin out like an amateur, getting caught with an uppercut that resulted in the first of 2 knockdowns.

“Yeah well at least I get up after this one,” the best excuse I can make.

Spencer  does that thing where his right eye closes and he shakes his head. Something only Spencer Mullen would do, his way of dealing with smart-ass remarks (my forte).

“Round 8 flatline!”

“I know, I know.”

“You ‘know,’ but you don’t understand! How’s the man carrying the legendary name of ‘Sugar,’ going to be caught with such plain shots to the face! Why the hell were you not covering your face?!”

Spencer fast forwards the footage to where I foolishly drop my arms, making it look like a taunt, when in face it was because I felt the tickle, the feeling of goose bumps, going up both of my arms. I was gassed.

Completely gassed.

If I bothered to block, much less throw another punch, it could have been swatting a fly. And the fly would get away without a single mark.

“It helps the brand,” another smartass remark.

Spencer taps at the screen, bringing up one of the countless fight reports, checks the CompuBox, number of punches landed versus thrown, and doesn’t say a word. He looks up at me, eye closed, a sigh, and taps the screen.

Yes, I get it.

This wasn’t just a loss.

It may very well have been a turning point.

“X” won, 11-0 record. 10 by KO.

 

DECENT FIGHT RECORD

 

Is he a prodigy? You might say he is.

“You’ll want to take him up on the rematch clause,” Spencer insists.

A rematch. What does it mean when I go pale, flush with fear, at such a thought? Don’t answer that. Spencer leans in close and looks at the welt.

Makes a clicking noise with his tongue, “This was the left hook that done it.”

Yeah, it was. And it probably hurts. I just don’t feel it yet.

Adrenaline hasn’t fully flushed from my system yet.

Once it does, I better be on the painkillers.

“Just get me to the hospital,” I say.

He pulls back, crosses his arms and shakes his head:
“Tell me first, what is it that you’re fighting for?”

I lower my head, no reply.

“It must be something because it used to be for you. You fought to fight yourself. When you were 2 and 0, fresh out, you told me you wanted to fight to be the best you could possibly be. Now I look at you and I see someone bruised up and broken, looking to blow it all.”

He grabs my forearm, hands still wrapped in tape, “What. Are. You. Fighting. For?”

I look at my taped up hands.

I look down at the blue gloves hanging slack against the side of a nearby bench. I look at the locker room door, open a jar, not a single invading source, typically we’d have to keep it closed, locked, because every media personality would be clawing at the door, finding a way in, wanting a sound bite, something, anything, but now, I see an empty hall and the lingering nuance of stale laughter. At my expense, at my loss.

I look up at Spencer, the only person that cares about who I am, rather than who I fought so hard to be, and I…

I can’t.

I have no answer to that question.

Likely the most important question to be posed at this point of my life and career and I haven’t a clue.

I have lost focus, lost favor.

“I can’t answer that question.”

Spencer relents, but still manages a sigh that digs under my skin.

“Let’s get you to a hospital. God forbid you’d want to feel the magnitude of your decisions.”

He’s right. I’m quick to act but last to understand the effects of what I’ve done. By the time you read any of what I’ve said, I will have yet to fully comprehend the telling. I might tell you everything, more than I want to tell, and it won’t hit me as reality for weeks, months; it might never register as reality. That’s another scar on the surface of my being:

Incapable of keeping private and public life apart.

I don’t know how much they know about me.

They probably know the whole story.

You probably already know what’s going to happen.

You know where this is going, right?

Wish you could point me in the right direction.

LAUGHTER

A CHUCKLE

 

Not quite cheery, more like the clearing of one’s throat. A sweet feminine voice, made to be sweet because it’s her duty to take care of me. Nurse of many, nurse of few, tends to my wounds while holding my hand, checking my pulse, scribbling notes onto my chart.

How am I doing?

I’m on painkillers.

Right about now, I’m doing swell. If you’re asking about later, we don’t talk about later. We let everything that isn’t the dozy trance of “right now” slip by as nonessential.

The nurse notices that I’m awake, “How are they treating you?”

By “they” she means the pills.

“Swell,” I reply, slurring the word so that it sounds more like “shwellp.”

“Oh boy you don’t need any more.”

No I don’t.

But she gets me feeling good, asking me if I feel this, feel that, scribbling more onto my chart.

I do my best to strike up a conversation, “I used to go 12 rounds and still have enough energy to hit the bars for another 12 rounds!”

That’s what I said. I can’t be sure it’s actually what she heard.

Again, the painkillers.

She smiles and giggles because that’s what she does, as part of her “cute nurse” routine. Says something like “A lesser man would have tapped out.”

Whatever that means.

I just don’t want her to keep scribbling in my chart.

“I used to see that left hook from a mile away. I used to be the one that threw the hook just so that they’d see it coming and duck. I used it to get them into a position where I could land an uppercut right under the chin. Left hook, left hook, pause, assess, uppercut while they block, block, weave, duck, impact.”

“My my,” pandering, being nice, because, why not?

“Those were the days when I could really throw a punch. Never went down though, never got them down to the canvas for more than a 5 count. Power but I have a chin. Had a chin. Cast iron I’d say. Now I can hear glass shatter whenever I take one to the jaw.”

More scribbling, not really listening, but the nurse is nice enough and who really listens to anyone anyway?

“I’m ‘Sugar’ Willem Floures. Got to mean something right?”

The nurse nods, “My mom used to watch every single one of your fights. She always bet on Sugar.”

“What about you?”

Not understanding my slurred speech, she seems to say, “You had one of the best win-streaks I’ve ever seen.”

Again I ask, “What about you?”

“Me? Oh I always bet on the other guy.”

She looks at me, must have some kind of grimace on my face because she chooses to explain herself, “Don’t get me wrong; I love watching a good Floures fight but I always bet on the underdog. I watched every fight hoping that you’d surprise yourself, catch one and go down for the knockout.”

“Then tonight’s fight was good then?”

Oh, now she hears me loud and clear. “If you want me to be honest, yes – I enjoyed the fight. Executioner looks just like you when you were just starting out and the league fights were in those high school stadiums and broadcast on cable TV.”

I want to defend myself but my guard is already down and the nurse managed to jab her way right into the most fragile depths of my ego.

Not that there’s a whole lot left to maintain.

I go quiet. She continues scribbling into the chart and for a brief moment I consider what she might be writing down, what must be so important that she sacrifices legibility for the speed of the scribble?

 

IS MY CONDITION REALLY THAT BAD?

 

There’s something I don’t want to think about right now, not while I’m on so much medication. You get the wrong thought and it because the only thought. So I’m thinking instead about what I might do as a counter, saying something that will somehow make her regret her choice to cheer for “Executioner.”

I garble my words, not quite sure what I’m trying to say, when Spencer walks into the hospital room, instructing the nurse to leave.

“Yes, sir, I must keep a log of – ”

“That can happen later. He’ll be here all night.”

Spencer glares at the nurse. She looks at me, “You feel better, okay?” and quickly leaves the room. Door squeaks shut.

Spencer pulls a chair up to the left side of the hospital bed.

Sits down and leans forward, “Don’t you talk to anyone. How many times have I told you, huh?”

I close my eyes, letting the nameless force pull me under, into a deep sleep most preferable than listening to yet another lecture, but Spencer’s voice cuts deep enough to sever that tether, and I rise back up, eyes opening, looking, focusing, Spencer asking me what I told the nurse.

“Nothing, just good times.”

“Good times? That won’t cut it. What did you tell her?”

I take a moment to recall what I had said.

Sure, fine, I tell him. You don’t need to hear it a second time.

Spencer shakes his head, “You never learn do you? Do not talk to anyone when you are under the influence of anything.”
A younger version of me would ask why.

For Spencer’s sake, he doesn’t manage a younger version.

He’s stuck with old and busted.

Old and busted he can deal with.

Doze through the lecture, about how I am susceptible to disclosure of information that could leak to the media, ruining the prefight promotional junkets, which is, according to Spencer (really, according to anyone but me; I loathe it; loathe it all), the fight before the fight.

 

THE LECTURE

 

Lecture about how a match is divided into two, maybe three if you count the post-fight conference.

1) The interviews, the meet-and-greets, the spotlights on sparring, method, strategy; the celebrity mingling, etc.

2) The actual fight, the fight that I thought this was really all about but I guess not; more and more these days it seems like this is an afterthought. Who really trains anymore?

3) That post-fight conference where the media grills you on your performance, like anyone really needs that after going 12 rounds.

On and on and on he’ll go and I need to follow him, agreeing at the end of every sentence.

 

THIS IS HOW IT GOES

KEY ELEMENTS TO A PROFESSIONAL FIGHT

 

But it goes, and eventually he will stop.

Things settle down and I get to enjoy a brief but lovely period of recuperation.

That is, unless Spencer doesn’t stop and proceeds to tell me:

“And you’re good for it.”

“Huh?” Good for what?

I already know, and I can feel that knot of dread already forming, twisting, coiling up, somewhere deep in my stomach.

“Executioner v. Sugar II. I signed the contract. Word should be reaching the media…” he looks at his wrist, not that he ever wore a watch, “right about now.” Stops, looks around the hospital for the first time, and then asks me, “Excited?”

Excited is not the word.

I let the effects of the painkillers pull me back under in the nonsense of a drug-laced consciousness. Temporary escape.

Last thing I hear before completely letting go, falling into a coma-like sleep, is Spencer saying “Let’s get you well. Got to get you back on the routine in a week’s time.”

But I am not there.

Partial consciousness I play with the prospect of never resurfacing.

I will comb the nonspace and turn it into my home.

 

HOME SWEET HOME

 

I’ll be right here. Fine.

But loose escapes are little more than lingering.

Ask Spencer and he’d say it’s not far off from loathing.

I just want to sleep.

These days I fail to fend off the hours that used to be mine; I wake when I wake, frantically rising to my feet when I discover that I slept through to beyond the point where the day can be anything more than half of an afternoon. And the routine, it places me to the side of myself, incapable of keeping track of anything else but the pressures of every incoming promotional event. They all ask me:

“What does it mean to be Willem Floures?”

I had a statement prepared, but I must have left it behind, somewhere, maybe resting on a table somewhere.

Yawn and let it take me, for now, the drugged sleep.

I’d like to ask them the same question.

I’d like to reply by saying:

“You tell me.”

All I know is that I’m not the same person I used to be.

 

EXECUTIONER V. SUGAR II…

 

I signed the contract…

Word should be reaching the media right about now

Excited?

Hear gasps, deep breaths.

Familiar, they are my breaths.

Tired, strained.

Let’s get you well…

Got to get you back on the routine in a week’s time…

 

THE ROUTINE

 

I can’t get back to myself, much less the day-to-day.

“Sugar, what happened back there? It appeared as though he gassed you by focusing on body shots. Would you say that’s accurate?”

Don’t ask me.

Ask one of them.

They know me better than I know myself.

 

 

 

Photo By: nicdalic

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About Author

Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of a number of novels including The Laughter of Strangers, My Pet Serial Killer and The Sky Conducting. He serves as Electric Literature‘s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry.

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