"Is that a harpoon you're using, Doc?"
"Sorry, kid. Just a couple more stitches."
Dan Cole hadn't been aware of it hurting so much at the time the elbow landed on his forehead, but it had bled like a son of a bitch. After he'd submitted his opponent the cut man had stanched the bleeding, and now the doc was sewing him up. He ached all over. That was the way he usually felt after a fight, win or lose. But his head really hurt, and the doc's needle wasn't helping.
Oh, well, soon they'd be on their way back to Cincinnati. And at least he'd won. The elbow had been a wake-up call in the third round, and he'd managed to take down Cruz, his opponent, and get him with a guillotine choke. Put the fucker to sleep, in fact.
"There!" Doc said. "You're going to have a scar there. I'm not a plastic surgeon, you know. Use Aleve for the pain, but don't take too many. They can tear up your stomach." He turned to Frank, Dan's trainer, and continued, "I don't think he's got a concussion, but there's a chance. You'd better keep him awake," he looked at his watch, "until four or five o'clock. Not much sleep for either of you tonight."
Dan sat up front next to Frank as they sped down I-71 from Columbus. His training partner Josh was asleep in the back seat. Josh had been later on the card, after some people had actually arrived at the arena. He, too, had won his match, but he'd done so more convincingly than Dan had.
Well , Dan thought, the winnings aren't much, but every little bit helps with the bills.
"That was a nice hip throw you took him down with," Frank commented.
"Thanks. I've got good teachers."
"Shouldn't have let your arms down, though. That's why he was able to catch you with the elbow."
"Well, it was the last round, and I could hardly hold 'em up. I didn't think he would move in on me that fast."
"Uh huh. You underestimated your opponent, didn't you, boy?"
"Yeah, I know. Always expect the worst. Never take anything for granted."
"Good rules to live by, not just to fight by. But about the fight . . . I'm surprised you didn't go down when he got you with that elbow."
Dan chuckled and then wished he hadn't because it intensified the throbbing. "Yeah. Like the way Brown caught Faber. But I must have a harder head. Or Cruz didn't hit me as hard. But the blood began to run down into my eye right away. So I knew I had to take him to the canvas. It would've been too dangerous to stay on my feet when I couldn't see his right coming at me."
"Smart, Danny! You've learned a lot."
"Thanks." It was tempting to put his head back and go to sleep, but the doc had said not to.
He didn't know how long after that it was when Frank said, "You aren't asleep are you? We just passed King's Island. Gotta stay awake. We'll be home soon."
"Home" was Frank's house, where Dan had lived in the spare bedroom since he was kicked out of his studio apartment because he was late with the rent.
When he woke up it was 2:15 on Sunday afternoon. Frank had stayed up with him, making sure he didn't fall asleep too soon. At 4:00 he'd said, "Okay, let's go to bed."
"Thanks for looking after me, Frank. Sorry you had to stay up so late."
He took a bath when he got up, not wanting to get his bandage wet in the shower. He didn't feel too bad, all things considered. The cut still hurt, but otherwise he felt okay.
He left the bandage on even though the ringside doc had said it would be good for air to get to the cut. He didn't want to shock people with how bad it looked.
He went to Bob Evans and had a big breakfast, figuring it would probably be his only meal that day.
Frank was out when he got back. Dan used Frank's land line to call home since it wasn't a toll call from West Chester to Loveland, and his cell was out of minutes. If his mother answered, he'd hang up.
He relaxed when his father answered.
"Hey, Dad! How'd service go this morning?"
His parents were both musicians, his mother a violist with the Cincinnati Symphony, his father the organist/choir director of a large suburban church.
"Danny! How are you? Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. How are things with you and Mom?" He could hear the viola playing faintly in the background.
"Your mother's fine. She's in her studio practicing."
"I hear her."
An awkward pause followed.
"I had a fight last night. And I won."
He heard his father sigh. "That's better than losing, isn't it?"
"And you came through it okay?"
Dan wasn't about to mention the cut. And the probable scar on his forehead. "Yeah, I'll be fine."
"You know how much we wish you'd come home, Dan."
"And you know why I can't."
"I don't want to start a fight with you. But it's why you won't come home, not why you can't."
"You and Mom are the ones who said I couldn't live there if I wanted to be a fighter."
"We miss you, son."
"I miss you guys, too."
Another pause. Then his father said, "Look, you know as far as I'm concerned you could come home and still be a fighter if that's what you really want to do. But you know how your mother feels."
"Uh huh. She's embarrassed that her son is doing something as disgraceful as MMA."
"I don't think you're being fair. She's worried about you. MMA is a brutal, barbaric activity, as she describes it, not a sport. Still quoting her, if you're determined to get yourself disfigured and brain damaged, she can't stand to see you while it's happening."
"I'm not asking to move back, Dad. I just called to say I love you."
"We both love you, too, Danny."
"Well, say hello to Mom."
* * *
Monday morning before going to work as a bagger at Kroger's Dan changed his bandage. The cut wasn't infected, but it looked awful. He applied Neosporin to it and covered it with fresh gauze, which he fixed in place with adhesive tape.
"Jesus, baby, I'd hate to see the other guy! What did he do to you?"
Cheryl was the cashier he usually worked with. She reminded him of Debbie on "Queer as Folk." Overweight, with dyed hair and too much makeup. And the proverbial heart of gold. Dan kept expecting her to call him "Sunshine." And he did look a little like the twink on that show. But, of course, Cheryl would never have seen it.
"I won, Cher. That's what counts. This is just a scratch."
"It must be a damn big scratch. That bandage is huge!"
"Yeah, it goes from my eyebrow almost to the hairline."
"Will there be a scar?"
"Uh huh. Doc said there'd be one unless I had surgery to fix it."
She put her hand to his cheek. "Such a pretty face. But maybe a scar will give you character. A lot of girls won't like it, but that's not a problem."
He grinned. "Well, I suppose some guys would be put off by it, too. But let's see how it heals up before we get too upset, okay?"
"Sure, sweetie. Hey, I've been seeing a product advertized on TV that's supposed to make scars less visible. Maybe you can try that."
Their first customer of the day was ready to check out, so that ended the discussion.
After work he went directly to the dojo, where Tom Denken, the owner, insisted on taking off the bandage and looking at the cut.
"Doc did a good job. It isn't even seeping now. Still, no man-to-man contact for you this week, no sparring, nothing like that. You can work on your cardio, both bags, weights. But nothing that will open up the cut, right?"
"Whatever you say, boss."
Tom turned away and then looked back at Dan. "Oh, congratulations on the win, kid."
* * *
When Dan got back to Frank's after the academy closed, no one was there. He turned on the TV, flipped channels, found a program about Leonard Bernstein on PBS. He had no musical talent himself, but he had grown up with classical music. When he was younger both parents had given private music lessons in their home. So when he arrived after school he had to find something quiet to do so he wouldn't disturb anyone. In grade school he'd usually changed clothes and gone to play with the neighborhood kids. Later he'd often play computer games with the volume turned down low, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.
By high school his parents didn't have the financial pressure to give private lessons, though each usually had one or two students they worked with because of their promise. But by that time, Dan was often late getting home because of wrestling practice.
His mind went back to the reasons why he'd moved out of his parents' house. He'd been a wrestler at 145 pounds in high school and was runner-up at the State high school competitions in that weight class his senior year. He'd gotten grades and SAT's good enough to get him into any of the state universities. Money wouldn't have been a problem. He was an only child. His parents had been stashing money into a college fund since he was born.
But there was a furor when he told them he didn't want to go to a university right away. Since he was little he'd watched the UFC on television and had dreamed of being an MMA fighter. He'd talked with Tom Denken at the Cincinnati Mixed Martial Arts Academy, who'd seen him wrestle and who encouraged him to become a student there.
His parents refused. His mother was especially adamant that he not do anything of the sort. Words were spoken. Lines were drawn. And Dan had left home. So for the two years since graduation he'd been working as a bagger at Kroger's during the day and cleaning up the dojo after it closed in the evening. For that work, he got his training free. From Tom, Frank, and the other instructors, he'd been taught striking, judo, and jiu jitsu to go along with his grappling skills.
But money had been tight, and though he'd fought about every other month -- in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky mostly -- the pay at that regional level was low, and he didn't always have enough money to feed himself, insure and put gas in his old Blazer, and pay the rent.
That's why he was grateful when Frank offered his spare bedroom.
And had gotten used to listening to the noises when Frank had a woman in his bed.
One night about a month after Frank had taken him in, he was in bed when Frank got home. Frank had knocked on the door and, without waiting, come in.
Dan could see the taller, heavier man silhouetted in the doorway.
"What's up, man?"
"Bitch wouldn't give me any!"
"You losing your charm, big guy?"
"Don't laugh at me, boy. A man's got needs, you know? I'm hard up here."
"Looks like you'll have to take care of your problem like the rest of us, with your hand."
"Well, not necessarily. You could help me out."
"Me? You can't - "
"Come on! I know you're gay. How many times have you brought some guy in here when I've been out of town at a fight?"
"You know about that?" Actually it had only been one guy. He'd bumped into one of his high school wrestling buddies and, after a few beers they'd sucked each other off. And a week or so later they'd met at Frank's by arrangement and done it again. Then Tony went away someplace and Dan hadn't seen him again.
"Yeah. And I don't really mind. I mean I told you to make yourself at home. And you've never bothered me. I've never had to listen to you and some dude get it on. But you're getting a real break on the rent, and . . . I have this problem."
He rubbed the bulge in the front of his jeans.
Faced with a choice of being on the streets, crawling home with his tail between his legs to face his mother, or sucking cock, Dan had caved.
So about once a week after that he found himself either going down on Frank or giving up his other end. Frank was a patient instructor. As a corner man he was supportive. But when they were having sex, it was very impersonal. He wasn't particularly rough; it was more as if he wasn't there mentally. Dan, it seemed, was merely supplying a convenient hole.
Dan worked five or six days a week at Kroger's. He went to the Academy five nights a week. Which left him little time for friendships, except for the guys he trained with. And when training was over each evening, they were all tired. Too tired for more than an occasional beer before going their separate ways. No time for sex.
Thus the episodes with Frank were the only sexual experiences Dan was having, and those were all about Frank's getting off. He didn't care whether Dan came or not.
* * *
And so life went on. Dan kept on bagging groceries, training after work, cleaning up the gym.
After a little over a month, he had another fight.
His opponent, Carl "Killer" Kluszewsky, was 28. He'd had a couple of fights in the WEC, so he was, or at least had been, pretty good. He'd lost his last two fights, however, which may have been why Tom Denken had been able to get him matched up with Dan.
"You're pretty good at striking, for a wrestler," Frank told Dan, "but you'd better try to get him to the canvas and keep him there. You'll probably be able to submit him if you do."
Dan had filled out a little since high school and fought now at 155.
Kluszewsky at 5'11" was tall for a 155 pounder, and he had Dan flummoxed from the beginning. Using his reach and a nasty jab, he kept Dan on the outside for most of the fight. And his sprawl turned out to be better than anyone in Dan's camp had anticipated, so the few times Dan was able to get inside, he had trouble taking the taller man down. Meanwhile he was being beaten up by his opponent's strikes. By the third round there was a big mouse under Dan's left eye, and the scar tissue from his previous cut opened up and was bleeding freely. He lasted into the third (i.e., final) round, but failed to block a roundhouse punch to the temple. The lights went out and he dropped to the floor. The next thing he knew the ref was kneeling beside him and asking if he was okay.
"Yeah, yeah, let me up."
"Sorry, kid. It's over. Just lay there until your corner men have a look at you."
While his trainer and the cut man knelt beside him, Dan remembered that Kluszewski had terrible breath, as if he'd been eating something with a lot of garlic. And if he weren't so woozy, he would have laughed. What a silly damn thing to remember about a guy you'd been grappling and striking with for almost three rounds. Especially after he'd knocked you out.
* * *
Again Dan was glad he'd fought on Saturday night. That gave him Sunday to sleep late and nurse his wounds before going back to Kroger's. This time his nose was broken, so he looked even worse than he had with the bandaged cut on his forehead. Of course the scar from the cut was still there.
"Oh, Danny," Cheryl had exclaimed when she saw him on Monday morning, "you look like shit!"
Dan looked sheepishly at her.
"I suppose you're gonna tell me I should see the other guy?"
"No. Actually, he knocked me out."
She patted his cheek. "Poor baby. When are you gonna quit letting people beat you up?"
"It's not like I just let 'em do it."
She put a hand on either side of his face. "Then why on God's green earth do you keep going back for more? Are you crazy? There's got to be some hobby that isn't so hard on your beautiful bod and face."
"It's not a hobby, Cher! This is something I've always wanted to do."
"Come on, sweetie! Is it really like you'd dreamed it would be? Look at you. You go from here to that place where you train. You don't have any social life. No friends, right? No boyfriend. Jesus! You don't have time for a boyfriend. And when Denken thinks you're healed from the last time, he gets you a fight and you get pounded on again. And obviously you're not making any money, or you wouldn't be here!" She slapped her hand on the checkout belt.
"Sometimes I win, you know. My record is six and three."
"Yeah. You won that fight in Columbus, but that's when you got the cut. And you'll probably always have that scar, especially since you can't afford to have it fixed."
Their discussion, or argument as it seemed to Dan, was interrupted by a customer ready to check out. Dan sometimes wondered how people could come in and practically fill their carts by 8:10 when the store opened at 8:00.
* * *
When he got to Frank's place that evening, Dan was tired and sore. He'd worked at Kroger's all day. Then he'd drunk a protein shake and gone to the gym, where he'd trained until closing time and then stayed behind to clean up the place.
He ran a hot bath instead of using the shower. Lying there soaking, he felt the stiffness and soreness gradually fading. His thoughts went back to what Cheryl had said that morning. And she hadn't let up. He knew she cared about him. He knew she worked because she and her husband were saving up to send their youngest daughter to college. But she'd always treated him like a son, including nagging him about his fighting
He pulled the plug in the tub and then stood and turned on the shower to wash off the soapy bath water.
As he dried himself, the aches came back.
Maybe Cher was right. Maybe the MMA dream was all a mistake. She was right that he had no life. And he wasn't making any money. And she didn't know about Frank. He couldn't ever let anybody know about that. And he felt so . . . trashy, letting Frank fuck him just so he wouldn't kick him out.
He'd thought that as he got himself established, he'd get higher ranked opponents, make more money. And it had only been two years. Some guys were still fighting in their forties.
For the first time ever, that prospect didn't appeal to him.
But there were problems with walking away. He'd have to admit to himself that he'd been wrong. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Worse, he'd have to admit that his parents had been right. Shit, he'd never even told them he was gay. They were both musicians and both had gay friends. But how would they feel about having a gay son?
They'd not been happy that he wanted to wrestle in high school, but they'd gone along with it once they saw the protective gear and read up on the rules. His dad had even come to some of his matches.
What his folks didn't know was that his cock had often hurt as it swelled inside his cup when he was in close body contact with another guy. But his team mates often had the same problem. They'd laugh about it. And no one thought it was gay. It was just a part of being a wrestler, especially being a teen-age wrestler with out-of-control hormones.
Be careful what you wish for . . . He'd become a "professional" MMA fighter. But it wasn't like he'd imagined. He had no social life. He couldn't make a living on what he got from fighting, especially since he had to pay for his training. And now he would have the humiliation of going back to his parents. Suddenly, everything sucked.
* * *
Later that week when he got to the Academy, Frank said, "The boss wants to see you, kid."
Tom was often gone for the day by the time Dan arrived there. And except when Dan was working on his jiu-jitsu, he and Dan didn't talk much. Unless he'd scheduled another fight. And it was too soon for that.
The door of Tom's office was open. When Dan stood in the doorway, Tom said, "Hi, Danny. Come on in and sit down."
"What's up?" Dan asked, taking the offered seat. As he always did, Dan admired the trophies on the shelves in the room, most of which were from Tom's days of wrestling at the University of Iowa.
"How you feeling? You got clocked the other night."
Dan chuckled. "It was a lucky punch? Isn't that what I'm supposed to say?"
"Yeah, and most of the time that's not true. In your case, Killer was pretty much doing what he wanted with you."
"Uh huh. We weighed in at the same weight, but he was just stronger than anybody I've fought before. I couldn't get him down. He blocked my strikes. I admit I was baffled."
"Well, you've only been doing MMA for two years, right? There's still a lot we can teach you, and with more fights you'd pick up experience."
"But . . . ?"
Tom clasped his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair, and sighed. "You're still not on good terms with your folks?"
Dan wondered where this was going, but he decided just to answer the question. "I talk to my dad sometimes. But they don't approve of me being in MMA. Especially my mom."
"Maybe they're right."
"What are you telling me, Tom?"
"For one thing, I think you're a bleeder. You're building up scar tissue on your forehead, and whenever anyone hits it, you bleed. When word gets around, then your opponents will be targeting that. And then chances are either you'd be blinded by blood in your eye - or both of 'em. So you'd probably get knocked out or the fight'd be stopped."
"I've managed so far."
"Yeah, but look at you. You've got that big scar and your nose is crooked. I think it's time for you to weigh the physical damage against the possibilities."
"And to be honest, Danny, I'm not sure your talent is enough to balance the risks. You've got plenty of heart, but I'm not sure you have the killer instinct."
"All I'm asking is that you think about it. Didn't you tell me your folks would send you to college if you gave up MMA?"
"Yeah. But only if I go to their alma mater, ColbyState."
"Not a bad place to be. They've got good sports programs."
"Would they let me wrestle?"
"I doubt it. The NCAA is pretty picky. Since you've fought professionally, they might not let you wrestle, even though MMA and wrestling aren't technically the same sport. Besides, wouldn't your folks be likely to object?"
"They let me do it in high school. But if I go home with my tail between my legs now, Mom may say that wrestling's off limits so long as they're paying the bill. And I sure as shit haven't been able to save any money since I left home."
Tom stood up and offered his hand. Dan stood up, they shook, and Tom pulled him into a one-armed hug. "Think about it, kid. If you do decide to stay with us, I'll try to help you improve. And find opponents for you on your level. But . . ."
He left that hanging. Dan understood. So he thanked Tom and left.
Frank was out when he got home, for which he was grateful, since he didn't really want to talk. And since it meant they wouldn't be having sex that night.
He showered, dried off, and fell gratefully into bed. But it was a long time before he drifted off to sleep. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. He could either stay around the gym, even though Tom didn't think he had the stuff, or he could crawl back to his parents.
* * *
He'd forgotten when he called home that this was the night of his father's choir rehearsal. He hadn't planned on talking to his mother.
"Um, hi, Mom."
"Danny! How are you? Why are you calling? Is anything wrong? You never call me!"
"I'm fine. Well, banged up a little, but nothing serious."
"See! I knew you should never have gotten into that terrible MMA. It's not a sport. It's - "
"Mom! Please! I know what you think."
"Yes, dear. I'm sorry. So why are you calling? You know your father is at church tonight. I assume you meant to call him."
Dan sighed. "It doesn't matter. I'm just wondering if we could talk. The three of us."
"The Orchestra doesn't have a concert this weekend. Why don't you come to dinner Sunday? I'd say Saturday, but your father and I are going out with friends that night."
"Sunday's fine. Don't go to a lot of trouble. I'm not coming to scrounge a meal."
"Does this mean you've finally realized you should give up the fighting nonsense?"
"Let's talk about it Sunday, okay?"
"Of course, dear."
"Give my love to Dad."
"I'll do that. And I'm sure he'd send his love back to you."
Well , Dan thought after he'd hung up, that was a start.
* * *
When he got to his parents' house in Loveland (he had trouble thinking of it as home anymore), his mother exclaimed, "Daniel! Your nose! And that scar! Oh, I knew something like this would happen. You look terrible!"
She offered her cheek to be kissed.
"Goes with being a fighter, I guess."
"Is that the best outfit you could find to wear for Sunday dinner?"
He'd put on his best polo and a pair of un-ironed khaki shorts.
"Sorry, Mom. My last pair of Dockers is frayed at the bottoms."
His father stepped up and hugged him, slapping him on the back as men will do.
"It's good to have you home, son."
He knew his parents were curious as to why he was there, but he had trouble bringing up the subject. So they ate, making small talk, avoiding the topic. After the meal, he helped his mother clear the table and load the dishwasher.
"Daniel," she said, taking off her apron, which showed a picture of some European cathedral on it, "let's go sit with your father, and you can tell us whatever it is."
At least they didn't go to the living room. Dan expected his mother to make him uncomfortable, but at least she didn't go that far. They sat in the great room, which had more casual furniture, with an impressive media center along the focal wall.
Once they were seated Dan took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll just say it. I've run out of options, I think. I'm not good enough to make it in MMA. I was wondering if the offer to help me go to college still stands."
"Of course it does. We told you we'd send you to college whenever you were ready."
He'd expected that reaction from his father. He looked at his mother.
"Yes, dear. I'm so glad you've finally come to your senses. We've put money away for years so you could go to college. And, of course, you'll go to Colby. Your father and I loved it so!"
"It'll be as good as anyplace, I suppose." And it's at least a four-hour drive from here, so I won't have to come home except for holidays.