Steven R. Wolfe

The Pit

Wrestlers by Natalia Goncharova

We were wrestling for our scholarships, so we played nice at the varsity matches. Headgear, penalty whistles, sportsmanship . . . it was the Depression, times were rough and we needed that money.

But the university team was just practice. The real story was later, in warehouses or taverns, greasy dark garages. No ropes, only the bodies of the crowd, watching, pushing us back into the pit. The hot smoky air, the men waving wads of cash, the bright-eyed women licking the tips of their cigarette holders with their wet pink tongues, the blood dripping blots onto the floor.

We tried not to break anything; in the daytime we were pals after all. But sometimes somebody moved too fast, or got carried away — the sound was terrible: a nose crunching like when you bite down on candy, or a finger snapping, and suddenly you’d smell it on his skin — the cold pain stink. We all knew: when you stripped down and stepped into the pit, and you’d get that feeling inside . . . you never could tell what might happen. It was a relief after all those books and lectures. Also, let’s be honest — didn’t people come for the pain, the sounds of agony to make your skin crawl and your girl cuddle up close?

The hardest of all of us was Abie. He was huge, a terror. Quiet and polite during the day, but last a round with him and you’d come out of the ring spitting blood and half-blind from his thumb gouging your eye. He wore a mask over his head for the pit fights — his parents were ashamed, he said, wrestling for money instead of paying attention to his studies.

But what choice did he have? His family had nothing. Once on our way out drinking we went down into the dirty tenements to pick him up. The mother was making some hocus-pocus with candles and a bit of yellow bread, the old man muttering in that language. They were scrawny and pale, cringing from God in their little mouse-hole. But Abie, he was a tough monkey. No hocus-pocus for him.

So one day we’re all having a swim out in the river, and Abie disappears into the current, and he doesn’t come up. I dive in and claw around. He’s deep in the weeds, his arms waving around loose. I drag him up, and he’s on the grass not breathing.

They said he came to on the morgue slab, dripping wet. It was in the papers; later the boys told us about it, in a packed saloon down near the American border. How he just sat up suddenly, shaking his head and coughing. “The doctor,” Irwin laughed, “he nearly had a heart attack.” Abie was sitting at the table, quiet, while they told the story.

Then come fall, instead of university he was on the docks loading sacks of flour. He could carry four where most men struggled with two. I saw it myself, one day when I was passing. He ducked with me behind a bin — we were smoking cigars in the snow, huddled into our coats, and he talked about the river, how a whirlpool sucked him into the great hole in the mud it until he couldn’t swim. He looked at me and smiled, “I couldn’t feel the bottom.” Then he’d choked on the muddy grassy water, and the next thing he knew he was sitting up on a slab in a dark room, with a white light that must’ve been a window. “Since then,” he shrugged, “My concentration—pfft.” He tossed the cigar butt into the dirty snow, slapped me on the shoulder and went back to loading.

A couple of months later we happened upon him in a raucous tavern where the whole team had gone to celebrate a midnight smashing of some heavy boys from Winnipeg and a pile of greasy dollars in our pockets. Abie was playing pool, winning a bundle. Late into the night we pushed outside in the blizzard to see a couple of red-faced New Yorkers in raccoon coats lighting into him. Big-mouthed damned kike, they screamed, Coward, Woman — he wouldn’t fight, just kept his head down and his legs under him, his guard up tight, bashed against the wall and back.

Their friends circled like a bunch of musk-oxen, but soon a pint glass flew, we piled into them and had a good big riot—we saw teeth in the snow that night, we cracked faces with cobblestones, we gouged, we bit, we stomped with our heavy boots. Somebody got in a good kick to the gut and Abie fell onto his knees barehanded in the snow, vomiting up dark blood.

As the police wagon pulled up his red-swimming eyes caught mine for a second, and he grinned through his clotted teeth. Show over.

After that night the team started drifting away. Somebody would lose a match or two, then he’d stop showing up at midnight, next thing his gym locker would be cleaned out and you wouldn’t see him again.  Even those of us who stuck around, it was different. I can’t exactly explain it; some big boy would come grunting at me across the canvas, his muscles bulging, and whatever used to make me want to knock him down and grind his face into the mat, it was gone.

I never saw Abie after they carted him off. What sticks in my mind, though, is looking down at him on the sidewalk; I swear it wasn’t blood, but mud, river mud, that he was vomiting up—thick black sludge and greenish weeds running steaming into the gutter. I think about his feet sucking into the pit and feeling no bottom — only more water swirling into the black. Can you imagine, reaching down that deep for something solid and finding nothing — a void?


About the writer:
Steven Wolfe teaches English and writing at Houston Community College in Houston, Texas. His stories, poems and essays have appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Exquisite Corpse, Green Mountains ReviewSoutheast Review and elsewhere.

Image: Wrestlers by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). No medium specified. No size specified. 1908. Public domain.