This serial fiction piece by Jack Vening, with accompanying illustrations by Mike Baylis, was originally published in three parts. They have been collected and republished here.
Your first great mistake is not realising that you’re always fighting for your life.
For example: we are taught as children to fear slime in all its forms. TV teaches us this; scary books do, and campfire stories about ghouls. But when it comes down to it the human body produces nothing but slime one way or another, and so we are being taught to fear ourselves.
At the height of my career I was, even to cynical observers, uncomfortably good at punching trained men into comas. I was so proficient in quantum-level violence that my presence in any given city usually resulted in its hospitals’ brain-health departments going bankrupt. This was a grim economy to be part of. I could have been killed at any moment, but the rewards were many. I never had to pay admission into a water-park ever again, for example, unless I wanted some kind of deluxe package where I could bring my girlfriend’s family, but even then there was usually a generous discount.
But with all this glory, could I punch the loathing present in my human soul? First I had a transition to make, one that began with learning to love all the slimes of the body equally: black bile, white bile, eye juice, blood goop, brain jelly, oestrogen and sweat/spit.
We need to revel in what makes us human in the same way the birds celebrate being birds: by flying around and burping up worms. Take a ride on a hovercraft! Start a fire using powerful chemicals! Do you think a gibbon feels guilty for zooming through the jungle on its long arms? A gibbon celebrates its power and so should we.
Consider applying for a car-loan to experience the wonder of modern economic process; make a large purchase with money credited to you by men and women you’ve never met. We are the only animals known to make machines that can clean gum from the sidewalk by blasting it with hot water at indescribable pressures. We are the only animals known to employ former prison inmates to operate these machines. And we are the only animals known to feel guilty for loving the wrong things, even though we spend our entire lives doing it.
There are no fights greater than self-acceptance. There is no ring more important than the slimy human heart.
It’s important to remember your origins. I got into boxing how most people do: by beating the shit out of old fridges abandoned on the street with a gang of other ugly kids. Those were mean days, when everyone was throwing their fridges away, when there were no girls to talk to, because our parents kept them locked away in vaults. We were all unhandsome and horny and itching to destroy things people had once paid a lot of money for.
In a modern society, beating up a fridge with your bare hands is viewed as an obscene act. My father fought back, blasting us with a fire-hose if we were ever caught. He called us shit-hounds and cum-brains, bad kids, real-life motherfuckers like out of a fairy-tale. He was a retiree with long, elegant hands, who had once dreamed of being a manager of champion boxers, but whose only real talent turned out to be playing the saxophone, for which he resented himself immensely. Every night after dinner he would play for my mother and I as the three of us wept.
How couldn’t we have dreamt of something else? The last time he caught me assaulting a fridge, what restraint he’d shown became untethered.
“You didn’t cry when you came out of your mother,” he screamed, as he sprayed us. “You honked like a goose, smelled like a lit match. The doctor held you up by the scruff of your neck and showed you round. ‘Behold!’ he said, ‘The horrors of nature.’ You didn’t look like a baby, you looked like one of those guys who they find preserved in a swamp a million years after he’d fallen in taking a shit. Begone!”
Normally we would run, but this time I stayed, busting my knuckles on the fridge, the fire-hose stripping my skin like paint. Every time he spoke I hit harder. By the time the water pressure cut out the fridge was in pieces, and I marched upstairs to our apartment and found my father’s saxophone and punched it right square in the belly, where the toots come out. From then on it honked like a goose every time he played it.
I thought, Behold the horrors of nature.
I learned that you can’t break an instrument and just expect the world to ignore it. That was the first time I went to prison. Have you ever been to jail? Holy smokes: what a snore-house. The movies make out that incarceration is the closest thing a human can come to experiencing hell, but in a Western Democracy this just means you forfeit freedoms only invented in the last decade, like watching Korean news at two in the morning.
I thrived. With my experience I was the strongest guy by a mile. The second strongest ran a book club. I learned that most people serving time are doing so only for an ugly mistake or, at worst, a minor excursion into the criminal hemisphere. My first cellmate had thrown his drink in a baby’s face, who was, by chance, the son of a UN ambassador. Another guy accidentally sent his mixed recycling to the President every week for forty years.
Maybe it’s true that these are not excusable mistakes, but they are tremendously human ones. Can we expect a letter of warning every time we make a heinous error? The universe suggests we can’t, but we go on expecting it all the same. And I expected a lot. Eventually, I was arrested so many times that the warden said he would keep the door unlocked for when I was coming back in. This was a joke, of course. Let me tell you: the whole system would fall apart. The hills would be full of fugitives running book clubs.
Either way, I didn’t care. I had ambition now, and I’d already seen the worst that could happen. Using his connections, an old cellmate got me on the waiting list for a boxing academy for young hoodlums, and soon I was making money doing what I loved.
I got there because I was hungry – starving, for something else. At the academy they taught us that wolves will swallow mud when there’s nothing else to eat. They’ll keep it inside them, pushing them further, reminding them what they want. You’ll never be great until you’re so hungry you’re willing to fill your belly with mud. Just remember to burp it up at a convenient time later.
3. Limits, Knowledge, Bravery
Achieving greatness isn’t just about working hard. You need to open your eyes to the world, try to absorb as much as you can. This took me a long time to figure out. Once I’d graduated and gone pro, I was working so hard to stay out of trouble—avoiding late-night Korean news, punching three, maybe four thousand saxophones a week—that I started resenting everyone I saw as slacking off.
In this way I had won three official boxing titles, and was a contender for about a dozen unofficial ones where you fight animals. I told myself I wouldn’t fall back on my old ways, but I wish I’d also taught myself about the dangers of over-work.
One afternoon, I saw a man walking down the street still wearing his pyjamas, and I just snapped. When I was finished, he looked like he’d dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool. The first people to arrive at the scene were a road-crew because whoever reported it thought the guy was just a puddle of tar that hadn’t set properly.
Afterwards, I found out that my victim was a doctor, and that those were the clothes a doctor wears in hospital. Pyjamas! The official uniforms of doctors! I thought: If I turned on the fucking radio once in a while I’d probably know these things. So I started listening to the radio every single day, and reading every book I could get my hands on. It was easy because I was in prison again and didn’t have much else to do.
That’s how I began to read about the resentment we all bear inside us. I began to write, too, about the fear we are all taught, about the slime we loathe, even as it pumps through our hearts.
It’s where I got into the Bible, too, which my father said was too sexy to have in the house. But I didn’t just read the sexy bits about flaming swords and people kissing their sisters. I read about Jonah, who got swallowed by a whale and lived to talk about it. Probably the only time that’s happened; certainly the only time anyone’s ever gotten famous for it. What’s more, it was the best thing that could have happened to him, because it gave him time to think, got his life back on track, put him on the path that he was always meant to be on, spreading the word of the Lord in the desert and convincing donkeys to wear clothes. I realised that we all need to spend some time in the belly of the whale. For me, that was prison, except on Wednesdays we got to watch movies.
At first they didn’t want to release me, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. But they could see that I was a new man, a godly man, who listened to the radio. As part of my release package I became one of those former inmates who cleans sidewalks with high-powered hoses. The old me would have turned his nose at this sort of honest work, but the new me looked at it as a new opportunity for growth. The new me appreciated riding home on a strong hose in the very-early mornings, like Jonah sailing away from his whale, with nothing left but mud in his belly, and a lot to apologise for.
With the money I saved cleaning sidewalks I bought a cheap saxophone from a pawn store and went to see my father. He had a whole new family now, a family of boxers. While I was away all those years he remarried and remarried again, collecting big, strong step-kids, kids he could blast with water until they were champions. At ninety, divorced a dozen times, he was finally the manager he’d always wanted to be.
We ate lunch with the sun shining on us through the high windows of his home. His children stood all around us, dozens of them. Some were huge, beautiful kids who looked like they might be winners one day. Under that light I gave him the saxophone and tried to tell him what I’d learned. I tried to tell him the story of Jonah and the Whale, a story he never knew. I tried to tell him I was sorry.
He picked the instrument up slowly.
“Tell me what you are now,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s not a fighter anymore. You’re a man who cleans blood off the road, you may as well be a machine yourself.”
He stuffed the saxophone into the trashcan with the crusts of our sandwiches.
“A fighter doesn’t sit in the whale,” he said. “He beats his way out of the whale. You punch out its butt and escape into the ocean, and then you swim, swim, swim, until you’re either drowned or beached on a tropical island. Being a fighter means you’re willing to fight the biggest guy around, no matter if it’s a whale, or a regular strong guy, or the President of the United States.”
I sat and thought about what he was telling me. The old me would never have listened to his father. But the new me was going to be better. The new me had his heart open to the world, so the new me grabbed one of his father’s kids right there in the kitchen, the biggest one he saw, and started beating on him.
I dragged him outside and went to town on him, right there on the road, in front of his rich neighbours. I could feel all the years of training flowing back into my arms. My father came out in his wheelchair and I hurled him into a swimming pool, him and all the tall, beautiful kids dumb enough to get close to me. I conked their heads together like coconuts, pulled them apart like wet trash. I felt great, full of noise like I’d swallowed the earth and it was rocketing around inside me like in a pinball machine. I’d made it, I was a champion again, standing there beating the shit out of my step-family like a bunch of fridges forgotten out on the street.
Jack Vening is a writer and freelance editor from Canberra. He tweets at @jerkvening.