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by Michael Chin

My first steel cage match, Jimmy Van and I sat backstage outlining spots. He had a reputation for being reckless, and he had to live up to it here. He talked about the standing moonsault he wanted to do off the top of the cage onto me, and all I could think about while I tried to talk him down was how he’d busted Kevin Prawn’s collarbone with a moonsault off the top rope last month and that was a perch six feet lower to leap down from. But how do you tell a man you’re about to submit your body to in the confines of a cage that you didn’t trust him?

Cowboy Sam shook his head at us. Kids.

I’d learned not to trouble Cowboy. To accept that he had his moods and there was no point in taking it personally.

Jimmy didn’t work like that. Asked what Cowboy meant to say.

Steel cage matches are supposed to be about isolation. Two men walk in. Fight in a cage and there’s no running away, no outside interference. Beat each other bloody and one’s finished, so the winner can walk out the door. Cowboy threw a fist at the air as though he were traveling back through time to some fight long past.

The cage is supposed to separate us from the crowd. Real men inside. The people who came to watch us on the other side. I’d heard Cowboy say the same of the ring ropes, of the raised platform of the ring itself. It’s supposed to protect them from the fight bleeding over onto them. But you guys just want the cage for something to jump off of. Goddamned children. That’s all you are.

And that’s the strange thing about hurt pride. About the kind of respect a man like Cowboy engendered in us younger men. That we felt a need to prove him wrong, and to prove him wrong by doing exactly what he said we ought to.

So we traded punches. Those hard knuckled shots to the brow, designed to draw blood. Then we grated wounds against the openings in the cage, stretching skin further, getting that blood pouring. We didn’t climb. Fought on the ground like in the olden days when we would have had a steel roof above us.

I was the loser that night. Selling the finish like I was dead, flat on my back, still as I could get. Still as death. And as Jimmy climbed between the ropes and stuck his bloody head out of the cage door, almost out, I envisioned my soul escaping my body, floating over me, up over the cage walls, into the lights overhead, through the roof, into the atmosphere, the moon, the stars.

But on earth, men carried me to the back. No stretcher to be found, they propped me up as best they could, spine stretched in a straight line, arms spread wide in a T until I was behind the curtains, out of sight of the crowd, where Cowboy was waiting for me. Back on my feet, he took my hand and shook it hard. I thought he might tell me I was man, now. That I was like him.

He patted me on the cheek. You did all right, kid, he said. You’re starting to understand.

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York, and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Knudsen Prize for fiction and has published in journals including The Normal School and Bellevue Literary Review. Find him at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.