A nurse wheeled me through a corridor, and the smell of some acrid cleaning product singed a path through the clotted passages to my brain. I'd just dripped blood onto the clean counter of the check-in desk, and then a doctor stuck a needle between my eyes to numb them. Now my pale feet framed an approaching gurney bearing the other victim of the beating, his eyes drooling from his shaved skull. I made him laugh in passing, but I doubt he knew why, nor who I was, nor that his mouth was moving.

The fat CAT-scan lady explained the machine. It would peer through my genitals, past labyrinths of innards, ignoring the heart and all things flesh to capture the cartilage and bone of the skull. She laid me down and positioned my head.

"You sure it's only looking at bone?" I asked. "I've got something down there neither of us wants to see."

She laughed. The machine laughed. Its bright, whirring light stripped my flesh in a prolonged flash, peeling away, I imagined, at the intricate layers of lies. The blood in my ears sounded like the Eel River, when I'd stand there as a boy on rocks too high to jump from.

The results were black, white, and obvious. The bones in my face looked like those glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons. My silly ears sprang like wet noodles from the sides. They wheeled me back to my room. The people I'd come with were gone. I didn't blame them. In fact, I hardly knew them.

When the bartender yelled last call, the band was playing something off of Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock. We drank up and waited outside. I was talking to the musicians in between them carrying gear. Everyone was happy and drunk and hoping to fuck something. Then something changed. A lot happened quickly. It took time to notice because the sounds of laughter and terror are pretty close. I was talking to Evan and a girl I wouldn't take home. I forgot her name, and the other names I do mention are only names to me. I know nothing more of these people.

Evan was laughing and then his face changed. Someone lunged between us. I turned around and saw Joey on the ground. Joey had played piano and enjoyed boys. His body was sleeping now. Only his eyes moved under the lids. The guys attacking aimed their feet at his head. Evan spread his long, black arms over Joey. There were four or five of the other guys—I really can't remember. Giant Samoans. They sprang back, surprised that such a little white man had such a big black friend.

It was the smallest of the giants who was the angriest.

He kept his body with the pack and stuck his ugly face out. Yapping with such hatred I couldn't catch a word. The only words I heard were Evan's. He spread his arms wide and yelled, "I don't hate you, I love you, just stop."

This was beautiful but didn't go over so well.

These men weren't searching for sentiment. No one even knows why they did it. But my guess is they each have a giant hole in their soul and they're desperately trying to fill it before it swallows them whole—and don't act like you don't have one. Some fill it with blood, others with God or cock or commerce—but it's there in all of us and we spend our whole lives throwing things and people into it.

After Evan fell into the street, the ugly one looked at me. I realized I was the only one standing there.

There isn't much to say about my defending myself. The anger in him far surpassed mine. He swung like a maniac and I kept my face buried into his chest. I may have landed one. Everyone said I got him. But the truth is, all you see are flashes of light, like someone's smacking the sides of a janky television, searching for a signal. You're spinning with the world and everything slows down. Nothing was more comforting than collapsing in a puddle of my own blood, behind an exhaust pipe, and finding no teeth in the pool.

Later they found a bloody gash between my knuckles. It was in the shape of a tooth.

I let everyone believe I got him. But I knew it was only reopened from the weekend before, when—no relation to my getting jumped—I'd hit some bridge-and-tunnel fucker down in Belltown. I knew it would all come around.

The bridge-and-tunnel fucker was at a hot-dog stand in front of that Quickie Mart. Had a square jaw. Started yelling at the Middle Eastern vendor about his toppings. The vendor looked perplexed. The guy kept yelling at him as if he didn't speak any English.

"You got your hot dog," said Neko, the girl I was with. "Just give the man his money."

I didn't like what he said back to her. He smacked his words, like an obnoxious child chewing. Then he pushed her—although, looking back on it sober, I may have made that up.

I went in to swing. Two or three guys caught me and held me back. They shouted calming things at me, let me go. I watched him talk at her. He looked like a hundred shitheads I've served in the last two months. "Yes, sir," I'd always say, smiling, picturing their teeth in my hand.

"I'm two seconds away from hitting this dude," I said to Neko.

He heard me, stuck out his stout jaw, and started counting, "One Mississippi, two Mississi—"

My knuckle caught his tooth on the second pee-pee-eye.

He fell like a rotten tree in a forest. When he hit the ground, the others swung at me—his friends. It didn't hurt. Felt like running through branches as a kid.

Now, having been hit myself, I was crying, laughing, and bleeding all over their police reports. I hadn't made a sound during the beating, but the thought of medical bills broke me. They asked questions and all I saw were Mag-lites. People gathered around, their heads lit just around the edges. Like when the sun falls behind Puget Sound and lights up the rich houses. I felt like I was on a talk show. Only Oprah wasn't giving away any cars.

Days later, my eye is the color of a sun-rotted plum, the corner cut, scabbed over, a trail of blood down my cheek. Just as a picture is altered by the choice of frame, so the eyes change with a shattered nose. It's hard to recognize the original piece of work.

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I leave my place for a cup of coffee and find two old friends huddled in the corner. They tell me their house burned down. Lost everything, including their cat, from a cigarette. My eyes keep sliding off their faces onto the floor. I have nothing to offer. Out the window, it's raining and the sun is shining. I walk home and I begin to smile. It's a smile I'm not supposed to have—the ones that form when you remember how small you are. I suddenly feel the entire world beneath me. Not just cut off at that mountain, that building, or that sea. And everything horrible happening everywhere appears like those dots satellites see from space. Everyone is living out their own end-of-the-world, and I can't keep from smiling. Not because I am happy, but because hurting doesn't hurt anymore. Because we are all dying together and we are too stupid to appreciate it.

People keep telling me they saw my face on the news. How upset they are for me. Which is nice. But I'm more disappointed that they all still watch the news. recommended