His Old Man by Gary Duncan
His old man teaching him how to fight.
Flicking out a left jab, flattening his nose. Danny’s eyes gushing, tears running down his face.
His old man saying, “Lesson one. Don’t get hit.”
Another jab, a decoy, followed by a quick right to the ear. His old man pulling it at the last moment, not wanting to hurt him, but Danny ducking into it, spinning, falling, picking himself up off the dusty floor, his ear thick and hot.
His old man saying, “Good, that’s lesson two. Always get up, never let them think they’ve hurt you.”
Danny fighting back the tears, hands up like his old man showed him, chin tucked in tight behind the oversized gloves, the ancient gloves with the split lining, damp and reeking of sweat.
Wishing he’d kept his mouth shut, wishing he hadn’t told him about the older kids throwing things at him on the bus, kicking his bag around like a football. Glad now he hadn’t repeated the things they’d said about his mother.
His old man saying, “It’s all about movement, son, hit and move.” Up on his toes, circling, peek-a-boo with the gloves.
Danny trying to copy him, trying to make himself light and fluid. Hit and move, hit and move, but tripping over his own feet, his own fat, flat feet.
His old man saying, “Think Ali, think Sugar Ray. Hit and move, son, hit and move.” Reminding him, not for the first time, that Sugar Ray Leonard is the pound-for-pound best there’s ever been and he doesn’t give a fuck if anyone says otherwise. Leonard, who made Duran quit, Duran of all people, who beat Hagler when everyone said he was too big and too strong and he’d need a fucking baseball bat to make a dent in that big old shiny head.
His old man telegraphing a right hook, taking his time, hoping Danny will duck or swivel or land his own jab first. That he’ll do something, anything. But Danny, his eyes still smarting, still swallowing the tears, not seeing it till it’s too late. Reeling backwards, arms flailing, hitting the floor with a thud. Trying to haul himself up despite his legs not working properly, because that’s what his old man said: lesson two, always get up, never let them think they’ve hurt you.
His old man trying to speak to him, a few weeks later.
Saying, “You should go out.”
Danny eating a cheese sandwich, the bread dry because they forgot to buy butter or pickle. Eating on his own, in the living room, the TV muted. His old man not eating again, saying don’t worry about me, I’ll get something later.
Danny saying, “I’m okay, I’ve got stuff to do.”
His old man in the armchair, the paper on his lap.
“You do?” His old man folding the paper, wondering why he even bothers to read it these days. “Like what?”
Danny shrugging, eyes on the silent TV, trying to lip-read. “Stuff. Homework.”
“You need to get out more. Get out and have some fun.”
Danny nearly saying it, but stopping himself. Like you? Sitting there all day, every day, reading that fucking paper, staring out of the window.
His old man thinking this is how it’s going to be now. Saying, “When I was your age I was never in the house. Your gran used to come out looking for us with her torch and we’d be hiding there in the bushes, killing ourselves, thinking this is the funniest thing ever but knowing we’re going to get a good clip round the ear soon as she sees us.”
Danny chewing his sandwich, wishing he’d bought some fizzy pop from the shop, trying to remember what his mother looked like. Thinking it’s only been a few weeks and I’ve already forgotten what she looks like.
His old man saying, “Go on, get yourself out.” Digging his hand into his work trousers and taking out a crumpled fiver. “Go on. Before I change my mind.”
Danny taking it, even though he’d rather go upstairs and lock himself in his room. Taking it and thinking he could maybe walk around the block a few times or pretend to meet up with a friend if it makes his old man feel better.
His old man taking him to get a haircut.
The barber putting a wooden crate on the seat when it’s Danny’s turn. Danny hoping no-one sees him, especially the older kids who sometimes hang around outside the shop. Not the ones from school, but they’re the same, they’re always the same.
His old man saying to the barber, “The usual. But shorter. Get rid of those bloody curls.”
The barber nodding. Danny sneaking a look at him in the mirror, thinking he’s the oldest person he’s ever seen, thinking it ironic, if that’s the right word, that the barber doesn’t have a single hair on his head, just big brown freckles and a scab above his left ear.
The barber still nodding, saying, “Sorry, Sam.” Reaching for the scissors with his shaky hands and saying, “About, you know.” Not finishing.
The barber shuffling around to the back of Danny’s chair, tilting his head forward, telling him to look down. Danny looking down, at his dirty school shoes, at the tufts of hair on the floor, trying not to cry when the barber nicks his neck with the scissors. Remembering what his old man said and saying it over and over to himself. Never let them think they’ve hurt you.
Gary Duncan’s flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices. He is the founding editor of Spelk Fiction.