My father loved to fight. He also loved to drink and when he wasn’t doing one he was doing the other. Most times he did them together.
He had a ninety-pound heavy bag in the garage. Every night he’d take a bottle of bourbon out, wrap his hands in tattered handwraps, and wail away until he was out of liquor or just out. You could hear the slap of knuckle on canvas, the bag lifting with each blow and dropping heavy on its chain. The rafters groaned and dust peppered down. Inside, dishes rattled in the cabinets. Whatnots clinked on the shelves.
Sometimes he’d yell at the bag as if it was an opponent, and Mom and I would jump, then ignore it.
When my friends would stay over, he’d come in my room bibbed in sweat from a session, his knuckles red, and talk about his boxing days in the Marine Corps. How he had an amateur record of 48-3-1 and could’ve gone pro. If he were really drunk, he’d take his fighter’s stance, but let his arms hang at his sides. That was our cue to attack him. And of course, he’d bob and weave and palm-smack us in the forehead and ribs.
It got so my friends would crouch in the corner and sometimes cry and I’d attack so they wouldn’t have to. He’d get bored of me and of trying to get them to “be a man” and he’d leave, saying, “Pussies,” over his shoulder.
Soon, my friends stopped coming over. I was a pussy on my own.
One night, with the bag rising and falling on the chain, I eased out to the garage. He grabbed the bag to stop it from swinging.
“What is it?” he said. He was slurring.
“Could you teach me how?” I said.
He bubbled his liquor, smiled, and said, “You wanna learn?”
He took another drink. “Well,” he said, shrugging. “You really wanna learn, first you gotta be willing to lose everything.”
“That means no crying or whining when it gets tough.”
“Cause what makes a great fighter’s not how much you wanna win, it’s how much you’re willing to lose.” He coughed. “It’s not how much you wanna live,” he said, “it’s how much you’re not afraid to die.” He leaned down. “You have to be willing to die, son, is what I’m saying. Once you’re not afraid of death,” he said, stood straight, and smacked his chest, “you’re free of it.”
He set the bottle down. Took his stance and rocked the bag. Debris dusted down.
“How do you learn to die?” I said.
He stared at the bag. Not blinking. “Guy named Ricky Starks taught me. We called him ‘Rabbit Punch’ Ricky, cause he threw rabbit punches in the ring.”
“What’s those?” I said.
He stood, wobbling a second. Staring, still not blinking. “It’s where a fighter hits you in the back of the head,” he said. “The medulla oblongata.” He reached around and touched the right base of my skull. Pressed. “Easiest way to knock a man out.”
“He punched you out?”
He smiled and nodded. “I whip his ass the whole fight, then he catches me with a rabbit punch in the ninth round. Time I woke up, people were already leaving.”
He smacked the bag again.
“Caught up with ‘Rabbit Punch’ later, though,” he said.
“And you got him good?” I said, too loud.
He cut his eyes down at me. “Nope,” he said. “I asked him to do it again.” His eyes slid off my face, down my shoulder, and back to the bag. Slicked over and unblinking.
“Punch you out again?”
He nodded. “I knew that’s how a man learns to die,” he said. “He just accepts it.” He blinked a couple of times and said, “So, you wanna learn?”
“Yes sir,” I said. I began to shake.
“Okay,” he said. “I wanna teach you.” He unraveled his handwraps and began wrapping them over my hands, through my fingers in a figure eight.
My arms trembled and I couldn’t stop swallowing. I cleared my throat. “What’d it feel like?” I said, and my voice broke.
“Being punched out?”
He smiled, took a drink, and squeezed my shoulder, and I’ve never loved him more. He was happy. He was proud of me.
“Lean over,” he said, “and I’ll show you.”