The Coil
Published in

The Coil

The Distance: Novel Excerpt

Fiction by Byron Graves

Swallowing butterflies
September 1987

A shadow swallows the glossy red sheen of my boxing gloves. I can’t hold my hands still. Don’t lose the light, he told me. His final words echo in my head, and the tremble in my hands grows stronger. My trainer, Chuck, puts his hand on my shoulder. It’s wrinkled and faded, but durable — like a baseball mitt. Chuck takes the picture and rests it on the table. A soft smirk is all I can manage to offer him, a silent thank you.

The roar of the crowd has crawled down the hallways, through the endless corridors of the Civic Center, pushing its way under the door. The cheering, shouting, and bass thumps create a muffled soundtrack, a prelude to the violence about to ensue. All I can think about is how little a chance I have of winning this fight. I’m a nobody from the Red Lake Indian Reservation where no one has ever made it to the pinnacle of anything.

Someone like me doesn’t belong here.

Someone from where I’m from is meant to stay there.

And now it’s too late.

A boxing ring in a sold-out arena is calling my name; in it waits the undefeated opponent nobody thinks I can beat, not even me. Sports journalists marvel at his blinding speed: someone wrote that his punches could crush a tank. An article in Boxing Magazine called him a hybrid of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The same article said our fight was a joke, a meager blip to amp up his record on his way to inevitable championship glory. Perhaps it was a brash sense of pride, or the one million dollar payday I was promised that made me foolish enough to take this fight.

I focus on the soothing smells of sage and sweet grass that still cling onto my robe. I close my eyes and the scents comfort me. There’s a thudding against our locker room door. A guy wearing a tuxedo pokes his head in, an HBO lanyard dangling from his neck. Gripping his two-way radio, he yells:

“Three minutes until your entrance. Let’s go.”

His words feel like a brick slamming into my stomach.

Chuck pats me on the shoulders. “Channel them nerves, Chase. Turn the fear into rage and harness it. In a moment like this one, all’s we can promise ourself is that we’ll give it everything we’ve got. That’s the one thing you can promise yourself, but it’s the only promise that you need to make …”

With my eyes shut, his voice almost reminds me of my father’s: a weary rasping found somewhere in between the sound of striking a match and sandpaper scraping against wood. Gruff, but comforting. When I open my eyes, the first thing I notice is his five o’clock shadow. My glance carries past his bulging cauliflower nose that is covered by crimson spider webs. I avoid eye contact.

“Chase, never in my life have I been more proud of a fighter that I trained. I’ve never watched a man have to overcome as much as you’ve had to. This fight tonight, that man out there, ain’t all that different from other impossible obstacles you’ve overcome. We can win this fight. I can feel it in my bones. Are you ready?”

I’m not, but I have no other choice, so I nod at him from underneath my red and black satin hood. My legs wobble as I stand. A loud, deep swallow forces its way down, so loud that I know Chuck hears it. My stomach feels like it’s full of shards of glass and rusty nails. My chest feels like it is being crushed in a trash compactor. I dig through memories, shuffling through moments hoping to find something that will bring me comfort, something that will magically inject some bravery into my veins. But everything flashes by too fast.

As my head lifts and my eyes peek from under my hood I catch my reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. I’m used to seeing someone I hate, someone who had let me down, someone who had let down everyone I ever loved. A sad pathetic drunk I despised. But, right now, as I am scared shitless, I see someone else.

I see someone who has been through hell and back. Someone who had to deal with an impossibly powerful strange sadness but never gave up, as hard as it was.

He kept fighting.

I kept fighting.

Through it all.

Through everything.

Chills rush across my shoulders and shoot down my arms. I slam my boxing gloves together. I smile at myself. This surge of pride seems to rush from my heart and through my everything. I’m strong. I’m stronger than I ever even knew. I lost everything; I crawled through the fucking worst, and here I am, still standing. Yes. Own that. Believe that. Become that.

“AAAWWWWWHHH!” I scream from my guts.

Chuck nearly jumps out of his skin.

My body has lightning bolts inside it.

My insecurities have been burned to ashes. I am not afraid of my opponent. I know somewhere deep in my heart that my grandpa is here with me, my dad is here with me. “Protect me,” I whisper.

Chuck opens the door. Motionless, I stare out into the hallway. Light stretches from the arena. My brother, Trevor, is waiting in the hallway, leaning against the brick wall. We nod at each other and begin our walk to the ring. They walk directly behind me in the unison of soldiers. My head leans forward; I bob it to the music playing in my mind. It’s a slow, steady rhythm, the opposite of the singer’s bark over the loud speakers. I throw jabs and hooks into the air. I envision them connecting with my opponent. I picture him wincing in pain. I picture knocking him out. I picture winning. I imagine having my hand held high in victory. I imagine all of my Indian brothers and sisters full of pride and smiles.

I want to win this fight so fucking bad. Not just for myself, but for my family, for my people. We deserve to finally win one. Logic and insecurity creeps back in and tries to tell me that I can’t. That stupid voice of doubt tells me the best I can do is to put up a good fight.

No! I say inside my head, but it feels so loud I worry I actually yelled it. “I am going to win this fight. I am going to win this fight. I am going to win,” I mutter under my breath.

We stop right before the entrance to the arena. I close my eyes and take a great breath. I exhale it hard. My brother and Chuck both pat me on the back. We’re only one step out of everyone’s sight, one step away from the spotlights, from the eyes of an arena jam-packed full of people, one movement away from the HBO cameras.

I slam my gloves together. “Let’s do this!”

When I take that final step, the crowd screams, whistles and cheers wildly. The blinding spotlights shrink my world to the path immediately in front of me. I notice the Red Lake Nation flag hanging from the upper level rafters. A smaller version of the flag is on the back of my robe. Trevor has it tattooed on his shoulder. I’m comforted by the familiar shape of our sacred lake and the animals that represent our clans.

For a moment, I feel like I’m home.

For one heartbeat, I feel a sense of oneness with everyone in my tribe.

Chills crawl across my skin.

We haven’t died yet.

We’re still here.

Still fighting.

I hold my glove up at the group of extra rowdy Natives by the flag. The rest of the Natives scattered throughout the crowd notice my gesture. They jump to their feet and scream, whistle and warhoop as I slide under the top rope.

Lurking in the other corner isn’t a man, but a monster. He towers over me by half a foot and outweighs me by thirty pounds. His eyes burn like riot fires. His lips curl into a snarl as he slams his boxing gloves together. His shoulders and arms are as big and as sharp as the Rocky Mountains. Chuck barks some orders to me but his words are crushed by the roaring noise of the crowd. I know now that my story is my strength. I channel the toxic pain in my heart. All of that awful rage and fear and pain. I let it set me on fire.

The bell rings out as the cold clank of the metal floats away. Memories of love, of heartbreak, laughter, the tears — they all explode. I rush at my opponent, high on bravery and pain. The world outside the ring disappears and the noise seemingly dies as our punches rain on each other like machine-gun fire.

Winner of the 2017 Oblaye Award for Great Plains & Midwestern Native American Writers

Byron Graves is Ojibwe and was born and raised on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He has been writing fiction since 2009. When Byron isn’t staring into his laptop writing, he can be found playing retro video games, spending time with his family, or cheering on his beloved Minnesota Timberwolves. Byron recently signed with AKA Literary Management.

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