Montana Border

He drove into Lafayette at dusk, the air thick with swamp bugs outside the windows of his truck. The fights were already on.

Photograph by Pete Doherty

He drove into Lafayette at dusk, the air thick with swamp bugs outside the windows of his truck. The fights were already on. They’d put the cage up in an old VFW hall and the beer stalls around the edges of the place were not licensed and neither were the fights. Daniel parked the truck and went toward a service door with a duffle bag of his gear. Bikers were running the door with one gigantic black man in a shirt and tie. That man took some time to find Daniel’s full name on the ledger and it had been spelled as wrong as you could spell it. They let him in and he had but half an hour to warm up and take his walk.

The man he fought had a beard and a bald head with old scars run through his scalp. He might have been 230 pounds. Daniel weighed just over 200 by the time he put his mouthguard in and climbed up into the cage. Both fighters wore four-ounce gloves and cups over their junk. They were announced by megaphone to a crowd of howling drunks. The ring announcer fucked up Daniel’s last name and said he was from Columbia, Canada. Daniel barely heard it for the blood that rushed to his ears.

At the bell Daniel tried to take the centre of the cage but the other fighter hustled in low and flat-footed. He loaded up and threw wild, looping shots. Held his breath all the while. Daniel backed out on an angle and push-kicked the man with the ball of his lead foot, shoved him clear. The man came back. Daniel stood him up with a jab and tried to follow with his right but the man blocked it and got hold of him and tried to tie him up in the clinch. Nothing but raw strength and grunts and sweat. Daniel jockeyed for position and got his hands clasped behind the man’s head. The bigger man tried to shuck him but he couldn’t and Daniel drove a knee into the man’s guts, his hips and ass behind it. All the air went out of the other fighter but he didn’t drop. He let his hands fall. Daniel dropped a heavy downward elbow across the bigger man’s brow. Another to the man’s side-jaw. He tried to follow up but the man wasn’t there.

He’d gone down like someone hit the off button and now he lay there limbstretched on the mat. Eyes wound back in his head. His forehead had opened up when the elbow first landed and there was red all over the man and all over the matting. Daniel walked the cage perimeter and people were hollering at him and throwing cans of beer at the stage. He quit circling and went to his corner and knelt there and watched the doctor work on the other fighter.

Daniel took his pay in an envelope. Five hundred dollars and a hotel room key. He had his street clothes on and thumped a beer quick and then he left. Out in the parking lot he met a man wearing a ball cap and cowboy shirt and that man paid Daniel his winnings from a bet he’d had the man make for him. Daniel counted the bills.

“I heard them calling it five to one when I got here,” he said.

“The line moved.”

Daniel eyeballed the man a second and the man didn’t seem to care for it much. He had his thumbs hooked in the back of his belt.

“Sure it did,” Daniel said.

Neither said another word but they shook hands. Daniel got in his truck with his gear. He did not go to the hotel and he did not stay the night in that state.

He woke in his truck and he’d sweat through his clothes. The sun had pulled up and hung full in the window frame. He’d left the glass down in the night and a grasshopper had settled on his shin and sat there fiddling. Daniel lifted his leg and scooted his ass toward the truck door and laid the crook of his knee joint over the framing. He kicked the bug loose. Sting of hot metal on the skin of his calf. He got his leg back inside and sat up. There were miles and miles of cornfield outside the driver door and a near-empty stretch of highway opposite. He stripped to just his gitch and leaned back against the seat. Counted bruises on his arms and on his chest and at his stomach. Knots in his right elbow like healed-over gravel.

Daniel got out of the truck and stood there pissing in the ditch. A car of farm girls went by and one of them hollered so hard that his piss cut out and he had to wait a second to start it going again. He stepped light in the rough grass to the bed of the truck and dug through his duffle for clean clothes. When he found them he stood there holding them and scoped the sun under the flat of his hand. He put some deodorant on and took the clothes into the truck and dropped them on the passenger seat and pulled out from the shoulder. He drove townward in his skivvies with a bare, bone-sore foot working the pedals.

He lay on a wooden bench in the warm-up room. Cinder-block walls painted over blue. As he dozed there were two other fighters hitting pads, one a heavyweight. Daniel half heard the leather taking mitts and shins. After a long while an official came in by the door and the heavyweight went out. Not fifteen minutes later the man came back with his eye shut and bleeding, his nose squashed. The smaller fighter who’d been at the pads slowed up and his cornerman whacked him upside the head. Soon they left to take the walk as well.

Daniel sat up and took off his hoodie and his socks. The heavyweight watched him sidelong with the one good eye. A doc had come in to examine the man.

“It’s like the fuckin’ state wrestling team out there,” said the heavyweight. “Them against all the fighters come in from elsewhere.”

“That’s how it always is,” Daniel said.

“Well, fuck,” the heavyweight said.

He spent the first round on his back, the wrestler atop him with his head drove into Daniel’s left ear. The wrestler stuck him with elbows and short punches to the body. Partway through the round Daniel started talking at him. The wrestler tried to posture up and thump him but Daniel had control of his wrists and the man couldn’t land clean. At the bell the ref touched them both by the shoulder and the wrestler got up slow.

Early in the second round Daniel found his range and pumped a stiff jab in the wrestler’s mug over and over, tattooed the man’s forehead with it and snapped his head back. When the wrestler tried to shoot in for a takedown Daniel sprawled back and stuffed it, pushed him down by the back of his head. The wrestler had his foot but Daniel shucked loose and circled out, drilled him with a straight right and then a left hook as the man got up. Blood from the wrestler’s lip and nose. Tired-dog look in his eyes. When next he shot in, Daniel had his timing and stepped in to meet him and put a knee to his mouth. It felt like he’d hit a sack full of light bulbs. The wrestler fell flat and lay there. Daniel loped low and belted him upside the ear with another left hand. The ref pushed him clear and covered the downed man, waved the fight off. Quiet in the arena save for a few fans clapping and whistling in the back seats.

Near midnight Daniel sat on a hay bale beside the wrestler. Farm party lit by truck headlights with one rig blasting Johnny Cash. Some people came by to talk at them or shake their hands. Many wouldn’t. The wrestler had lost two front teeth in the fight but they were fakes. He had them in the breast pocket of his shirt. They were passing a bottle of bourbon back and forth. Someone had lit a massive bonfire from old wooden pallets and fruit crates in the clearing before an ancient barn. Nobody could get within twenty feet of it and by the fringes of the clearing the cornstalk leaves were curling.

“Ain’t that really fuckin’ dangerous? ” Daniel asked the wrestler.

“Oh, yeah,” the wrestler said.

Daniel woke up in the rear bedroom of a trailer with a girl’s forearm across his stomach. He had no clothes on and she wore his T-shirt and not a stitch other. His dick was hard and he felt funny with it just out there in the open, the one bed sheet wound up in the girl’s legs. He stared up at the ceiling and tried to get his shit together. The girl beside him had auburn hair and a tiny lip ring, pretty as could be with her little makeup and freckles by her cheeks and along the line of her collarbone. He got clear of the arm slow and moved a pillow under it. No matter. She slept like the dead and her nose whistled.

The cop’s knuckles got him up again, over and over on the truck window. When Daniel sat up the cop took a good step back and watched him. Daniel looked around his resting spot at the highway side and car after car spat past and carried on to wherever. He blinked hard and wound the window down. The cop came back. After a second he leaned in with his forearms on the metal sill.

“Long night? ” the cop said.

“Yes sir,” Daniel said.

“You know you can’t just pull over and squat on the side of a busy goddamn road like this, right? ”

“I do now.”

“Uh-huh,” the cop said. “You get into some trouble, son? ”

“No sir.”

“You been in a scrap? ”

“It was a legal one.”

“At the arena? ”

“At the arena,” Daniel said.

The cop nodded and tilted his hat back a little bit. He started toward his cruiser.

“Just take it on down the road,” the cop said. “The state line’s that way.”

Daniel watched him go and then turned the key and tried to fire the engine. It picked up on the third try. He took off.

His last fight of that year was on a ranch in northernmost Montana, the cage put together atop two flatbed trailers. Portable bleachers set up around the clearing. Three hundred people saw Daniel get his brow split open by an accidental head-butt and they saw him bleed all over the matting and all over the other fighter. He wrestled the other man to the ground and in the scramble got behind him with his stomach to the man’s back, hooked both heels under his quads. The man tried to turn out but couldn’t and they were both facing the sky. With red pooling in his left eye Daniel slid his arm under the man’s throat and all the sweat and the blood made it hard for the man to grab his gloves and fight off the choke. When he cinched it in the man didn’t have time to tap and there he went to sleep.

They had the cut dressed and taped by a cattle veterinarian. The vet offered to stitch the wound but Daniel wouldn’t let him. Instead Daniel took his truck and his gear off the ranch and drove the twenty miles to the Alberta border. Where he crossed, the guard in the booth was asleep but the truck motor got him to stir. Daniel showed his passport. The guard asked about the cut and Daniel told him the truth.

“They didn’t see to it there? ” the guard said.

“If they messed it up it’d never be right again. I figured I’d better come back.”

The guard studied him long. Daniel waited with the windows down. Plain winds whistled by and they carried the scent of dewgrass. Somewhere beyond the pass there were coyotes crying.

At triage he gave his health card and other particulars to a rather pretty middle-aged woman who looked to have not slept in days. If there were a way to be less interested than she was, he couldn’t figure out what it might look like. He sat in a row of chairs near a busted pop machine. Only one other person sat in that room and he was likewise alone and looked Daniel over but once. A minute later that man was sleeping, chin to chest. He had his arm slung to his shoulder with a tied-off pair of corduroys. Daniel did not see any blood.

There was just the one doctor in the place and he came by Daniel’s bed to examine the cut. After that he fetched a nurse and she came in through the curtain with a basin full of gauze pads and a plastic bottle of antiseptic. Red, red hair that hung about her shoulders. She sat at the edge of the bed beside him and went to work on the gash. A few seconds passed with her that close and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He’d no way to explain it to himself except that he’d never had feelings just like those before or at least not all in a row. She did not seem to mind him at all.

“Where’d you do it? ” she said.

This appeared in the June 2015 issue.

“Pardon? ”

She pointed at his brow.

“At work,” he said.

“I’m told it was someone head-butted you.”

“That’s where I work,” he said.

The girl took the gauze pad off and studied the cut, his face, the whole of the man. She pushed in the tip of his nose with her index finger.

“How many times you break this? ”

Daniel shifted on the bed.

“Just twice. I got it fixed the first time, but it kind of kept getting bashed so the second time I let it stay broke.”

The nurse got up and threw the soiled pads away. She’d lain the anaesthesia needle and the stitching needle on the counter and she took up the first. Flicked the cylinder and pushed a dribble of anaesthetic through the bevel. Daniel saw her back through the scrubs, the knobs of her ankles. She told him to lie down on the bed. When she came over he saw the needle and sat back up.

“Wait,” he said.

“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” she said.

He started trying to talk her out of it but she put her one hand to his chest and pushed him back down. She sat in the bed beside him and leaned low and stuck him.

Two days later he was back at triage. The red-haired nurse passed by while he was filling out his forms. She came over and sat in the chair beside him.

“Hey, Sarah,” he said.

The nurse read his forms and his chicken scratch. His address in a city some two hours’ drive from there. She looked him over.

“My foot hurts,” he said.

She tried not to smile but she did.

He kept coming back with his complaints and traumas until Sarah let him wait out her shift and follow her to eat. They went to a diner with Formica everything and broken neons outside that had long gone dark. They ordered eggs and bacon and sausages each and she ordered a beer. He asked for a Diet Coke.

“I’m not drinking beer alone,” she said.

Daniel switched to beer.

“Not much of a drinker,” he said. “Plus I got to drive.”

“Well, we’ll see,” she said.

“See what? ”

“How far you got to drive.”

They ate plenty and Daniel wolfed it down. The nurse didn’t lag too far behind and Daniel could barely believe it. He had her by about eight inches and eighty pounds. She’d tied her hair back and a draft tickled at it from the poorly sealed windows. Outside on the plain there were no lights and no lights and then a blinking radio tower firing once every three seconds or so. There were only two other people in the place and they were cops. The one drank a coffee and the other had his head buried in his arms at the tabletop, patrolman’s hat listed to his shoulder and propped up straight to his temple. He seemed to be asleep.

They drank a few more beers and talked. She was from the Maritimes and her folks were still out there. Daniel told her where he was from and that he had a half-brother somewhere. Didn’t know him. That was all. She ordered another round of beers and asked for the bill.

“You make any money at what you do? ” she said.

“I did lately.”

She slid him the bill and he put his huge, ruined palm over the paper. He went for his wallet.

“Hang on,” she said.

A few minutes later the cops mustered and the one put his hat on right and stretched. They walked out without paying a dime and got in their cruiser and took off down the roadway. Sarah touched the back of Daniel’s hand over the bill and got up. She went to the waitress and handed her some money. The waitress pushed through a swinging door to the kitchen and came back a minute later with a crate of beer and set it on the counter. Daniel stood and brought the check over. He paid it and then took up the crate.

He had a licensed fight in Surrey against the only man who’d ever beat him. Daniel’s legal record was twelve and one but the other fights were so many that he had trouble remembering them all. The where of them. How they ended or how bad. The cage had been set up in a hockey arena and there were fighters on the card being groomed for the big show. Daniel and his old buddy were the top fight on the undercard.

In the fight he got hit so hard that his molars sang. He managed to tie the other fighter up and tried to shove him to the cage fencing. The man was older than him and the stronger man by far. Daniel lost the first round but wore little of it on his face. He was losing the second round right to the last minute and there he put a one-two through the other man’s guard and sat him down. People stood at ringside. The other fighter scrambled up and Daniel got him to brawl in the middle of the cage. They were each blasting the other until the man’s knee hit the mat and he got up again and started to back up. Daniel threw off-time hooks that split the man around the eyes and he beat him limp where the fence met the mat. The ref was slow to get there and Daniel did not quit until he did.

He took the hotel room that night and filled the bathtub with water and bucket after bucket from the ice machine. When he got in with his contusions and knotted shins and shrunk dick he could not catch his breath enough to howl.

Sarah had been in and out of bed in the mornings while he lay there knackered. She’d come back to him and put her head by his chest and her breath came too fast where it tickled his skin.

“Are you okay? ” he’d ask.

“I’m just out of whack from working nights. It’ll pass,” she’d say.

If he pressed her about it she climbed him or she kicked him out. Daniel had a week there and then he had to go back north to train for a fight he’d taken on too soon but needed bad. When he left her on her driveway that last day she held on to him too long and he started to hug her all over again. He backed out slow and she was barefoot on the gravel with her eyes hard on him. Daniel waited in the road until she waved and when he drove off he went very slow and his guts were in knots that didn’t loosen for hours.

He drove across the Montana border with the sun risen pale behind a grey sky. There were rains that had travelled ahead of him and left the asphalt black and slick. Not far into the state he caught a pool of water and hydroplaned, felt the truck go weightless and drift sideways. When the tires touched dry road the truck bucked hard and fishtailed the other way. Daniel swore shit he’d never heard of and then had the truck straight in the lane again. Nobody else was out there with him and there were no towns nor filling stations for miles ahead or miles behind. He slowed to the speed limit and turned the radio loud. He knew the song and even sang it in a piss-poor tenor, let the words of it rattle in his brain and take up room.

His motel room was the corner unit of a one-level shithole just outside the town of Boulder. Daniel had driven long and checked in but didn’t unpack anything. He slept shallow and woke early. They did the weigh-ins at noon and they were meaningless. In bouts where the fighters were coming in heavy they were switched to catch-weight fights before anyone ever got on a scale. Two fighters refused and they were cut out of the card and their opponents paired up instead.

Near midnight Daniel made his walk in suffocating humidity. He had no shirt on and no socks either and sweat pooled in his shoes. They were outdoors except for a kind of pavilion that country bands usually played under. Mosquitoes ate his shoulders and a cloud of gnats turned itself inside out near to where the fighters stood to have their cups and mouthguards checked. Daniel poured water over his head and his chest and when he got to the staging area they wiped him dry again with towels.

Early in the first round Daniel caught the other fighter in an arm bar, the man chest down to the mat with his shoulder caught. Daniel had the arm fully extended and felt the elbow joint pop between his cup and the canvas. The man didn’t tap but he couldn’t fight anymore and they called it. There were people in the crowd who knew Daniel’s name and when he went back up the makeshift corridor he signed a drunk guy’s ball cap and the shirt of a twentysomething girl with both her arms sleeved in tattoos. She said something in Daniel’s ear but he didn’t hear it.

In the side lot to the place, he met his bookie. The man was tall and had a nasty kind of skinniness about him. He gave Daniel his winnings and they were plenty. Not a dollar had been skimmed.

“That fella’s brothers are lookin’ for you,” the bookie said. “I’d clear outta town.”

Daniel nodded and the man put out his hand. Knobbled joints there and the digits far too long. Daniel shook it quick and left the lot. Twenty feet from his truck he turned and there were three bikers trailing him in their leather cuts.

He drove back into Lethbridge not twelve hours later and he’d done it with only his left hand. He couldn’t make a fist with the other. Part of an incisor buried in the meat between his first two knuckles. There were scratch marks by his eyes and left cheek as if he’d gone through a hedgerow blind. Otherwise Daniel was whole and bang awake when he pulled into Sarah’s drive. He didn’t see her car and he didn’t know what shift she might be on. He got out and went up the steps.

The apartment had been emptied. Everything but a milk crate filled with trinkets, pop bottles from the ’50s, a licence plate. Daniel stood in the entryway and had to lean against the framing for a second. He went through the place room by room and then came back into the living room and stared at the milk crate. After a minute he picked it up and flung the contents toward the corner. A bottle broke. He flipped it and set it on the floor. There he sat on the upturned crate and studied the pale walls. He went into his pockets for his phone. He didn’t have it.

At the hospital the triage nurse wouldn’t tell him anything at first.

“You want me to admit you? ”

“No,” he said. “I just need to know where she’s got to.”

The nurse just looked at him.

“She’s pregnant,” he said.

“I know.”

The nurse looked around the place. There was not another soul in earshot.

“She’ll likely have gone to her folks,” she said. “That’s all I can say.”

“Yeah? ”

“Wouldn’t you? ”

“No,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Daniel waited at the counter and leaned on it with his forearms. He didn’t have a plan about what to do next but the nurse wouldn’t shoo him. He had blood dribbling out of his one nostril and she handed him a tissue.

“Well, I guess can someone at least dig this tooth out of me? ” he said, and stuck his right fist under the Plexiglas for the nurse to see. She covered her mouth and just stared at the hand. She told him to have a seat.

There were choppers running the main street by early evening and they were too many to be from the local chapters. They were doing parallels in the roads and circling each neighbourhood. Two or three bikes parked in front of every tavern and motel office. Daniel got back to Sarah’s apartment at dusk and drove the truck through the gap between that building and the one beside it, the side mirrors folded back and just an inch or two clear on either side of the vehicle. He wheeled into the courtyard behind and parked in the middle of it where he could not find a sightline from any of the outlying streets.

He lay in the corner of the room on a sleeping bag and used his dirtied clothes for a pillow. The drapes were gone and silver moonlight showed the floor but none of him. He dared not sleep but he was bone tired and weak with it and soon his head bobbed and went cheek down to the makeshift bedding. Next he woke and heard scratching at the front door, metal working the keyhole. Daniel slid out from the bed and crawled the room face down until he passed the door. He stood up slow and waited there.

When she stepped into the room she had a shotgun held low at her hips. Daniel went for her and she turned and froze him up with the barrel and he staggered back in a duckwalk and fell. Where he came to rest his shoulders and his head were partway through the drywall under the kitchen divider. Sarah turned the gun barrel away and stood for a moment with her eyes closed, one hand to her heart.

“Sweet fucking Jesus,” she said.

They spent that night on the floor, close together with the scattergun full of double-aught buckshot and their baby in Sarah’s belly. In the small hours they heard an engine growling low and mean. Daniel reached for the gun but Sarah took it up instead. Truly he did not know what to do with it anyway. The world went quiet except for their breathing and the chopper didn’t come back for another pass.

“How long do we wait here? ” Sarah said.

“Till dawn, I think, and we take your car.”

Sarah nodded. She asked him to lie back and he did and she put her head to his chest, the shotgun close by on the floor tiles. She lifted his bandaged right hand and then cupped it over in the both of hers.

“If it turned out to be a boy, would you teach him to fight? ” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably I wouldn’t like to.”

“Maybe it is a boy.”

“I damn well hope not.”

Outside the moon had gone and they lay in almost pure dark and kept tugging at each other every now and then. Neither would let the other sleep. They had hours to wait yet.

This appeared in the June 2015 issue.

Kevin Hardcastle
Kevin Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize.