So What? (A Short Story)

The blood dripped down my cheek like the sweat dripped off his brow. Each labored breath tasted of the metal that was filling my lungs. I can barely keep my arms up to guard my already crippled torso. But, I have to push on. I have to win. Yea, I’m barely standing, but so what?
I started school a few months ago. Bright-eyed with enthusiasm that quickly dwindled as the pressures of my fiscal responsibilities weighed on me. The crushing weight of loans and bills and my vices gripped me like, well, a vise. My first few weeks were exhilarating, learning all of the elements of great writing from professors whose qualifications left me star-struck, as if I were in the presence of unsurpassed brilliance. They spoke eloquently and exuded the traits of good writers that I hoped that, by being in their presence and under their tutelage, I would be able to one day gain. I would read books about writing and reading critically in my free time between assignments. Assignments that I drank up like a fine whiskey, becoming intoxicated by the challenges of reading into stories rather than merely reading them. My professors pushed me to analyze and the analyses would push me to understand how to write. Coffee in hand, my fiction writing professor would constantly repeat “So what?”
So what?
Never menacing, never pretentious. Always constructive in its scope, the question would linger past the class and into every day of my life as I read and wrote and spoke and listened.
So what?
Those two words. Those six letters. They became my mantra. So much so that, when I got a tattoo of a typewriter on my arm, the paper feeding out read “So what?” Then, I got news that I was only approved for half as much of the loans as I had anticipated. Sitting in the financial advisor’s office, I was crushed. I considered my currently light work schedule and did the math as to how many more hours I could fit into a work week as her voice became but the faded words of freshly erased pencil lead. Should I get a second job? Will I have time to do my homework? When she finished, she asked me if I understood. I had to make monthly payments towards school. I looked at her and paused for a moment in my delirious state. When I finally found some words, the only thing that escaped my mouth were the words tattooed on my arm. So what?
I picked up more hours at work and became a rundown husk of my former self. I was skipping classes to work on homework for other classes or to drink in smalls sips of sleep when I could. The classes that had once given me wings began to weigh me down. And, as my grades began to slip, so did I. The late nights at work left me thirsting. So, I began to hit the bars after work. Shooting the whiskey that I used to sip. The whiskey that had once been my school work became my reality. Nightly, I would work. Drink. Sleep through my first class. Wander into my second with a headache, wearing sunglasses to conceal the bloodshot eyes that had once been fixed on my professors and were now instead fixed on the end of the night. Around the third month of nightly binge drinking, one of my coworkers stared at me as we closed up. When I shot her with the spitting words of defense that only an alcoholic writer could muster, she told me I had a problem. I looked back at her contemptuously and said “So what?”
After work, at the corner of my fifth and sixth shots of Bulleit, I started to become vocal about the worries that plagued me. A man I had seen in the bar most nights that ended in “y” approached me and gave me his number. He told me he has some side money I can make if I need it and to text him when I decided to take him up on his offer and he left. Four drinks later, I texted him, barely legibly “Whn n whr?” He simply sent back an address. I touched the address and pulled it up in my GPS and stumbled out of the bar. I don’t remember driving there, but when I opened the steel door on the white-washed building, the sweet smell of liquor washed over me, underscored by a bitter smell that I couldn’t place. I walked into a smoke-infested room full of men much larger than myself and lit up a cigarette. In the inner circle of the crowd was the man whom I had texted, eyes fixed intently on something I could not yet comprehend. When I asked him what was up, he grabbed my shoulder and jerked me towards whatever he was watching. Two men, shirtless, bare-knuckle boxing. Blood thinned by sweat dripping from their temples. The light red liquid seemed to shine like an ignored stoplight after a good night of drinking. The man explained to me that this was my opportunity to make some cash. I agreed to participate. After one of the men in the middle of the room finally collapsed, they dragged him out of the small circle and the other man was handed $500. I was told that my first fight would be worth $250. Unless I place a bet on myself, which would increase my payout to about $500. My liquid confidence was well in effect at this point, so I placed a bet on myself and they lead me to the circle.
I stared down my opponent. It must have been the fistfight for him, as well, because I could see the small chatter of his teeth as we approached each other. A hand reached up from my side and poured a shot into my mouth. Then another hand reached up and socked my opponent in the rib cage, sending him reeling backwards. My own hand. He returned a blow to my booze-numbed face. So what? I hit him back, square in the nose, feeling it shatter underneath my fist. He fell on his ass and I screamed at him to get up and he obliged. I thanked him with another blow to the ribs and he thanked me with a spatter of blood from his mouth. He was sweating, but I was not. When he staggered back towards me, I hit him with a left jab to the sternum and a right hook to his cheek and he fell. All those Rocky marathons really paid off, even if I stood orthodox rather than southpaw. I stared daggers at him, as if hoping the weight of my gaze would keep him down. He never got up. He was dragged off by his feet and I was congratulated with more spirits, and my spirit was lifted as I was handed $500 and an extra hundred for such an entertaining fight, albeit a short one. That was the last thing I remembered of the night before waking up in my car in the parking lot of the college.
This continued for a while: work, drinks, fights. I was winning nightly, slowly accumulating a small fortune. Never losing. Confidence growing as my motivation shrank, as if making room for my ego. That white-walled building became my refuge. And tonight, when I arrived, I was told that I was fighting the reigning champ. I was set to make $2500 if I could drop him in the first thirty minutes, $5000 if I could get him in the first fifteen. I placed a rather confident bet on myself for the first fifteen, which would make my payout $7500. Enough to pay my next two year’s tuition after loans. So, they lead me towards the circle and I patiently waited for my opponent. The man from the bar stepped in front of me and removed his shirt, revealing his numerous army tattoos. I was going to be fighting the man who got me here and I was going to win. He cracked his knuckles and his neck and pulled his hair back into a ponytail. He was considerably larger than me, but so what? As gentlemen warriors, we touched fists and backed up a few steps. There was a lump in my throat that felt like swallowing a gold coin. We approached each other and the fight began.
He beat my ass like an angry farmhand for the first 5 minutes, hitting me with hooks and jabs to the face that still felt like running full speed into a brick wall, even through my alcohol-medicated numbness. But I stayed standing and flailed my arms, like one of those inflatables in front of sketchy used car lots. But, oh, he was much faster and stronger than me and hit me between my noodle-like attempts at punching. He hit me with a heavy combo to my torso and I felt my rib crack and my lung puncture. Fluid was sitting in my lungs, but so what? The blood dripped down my cheek like the sweat dripped off his brow. Each labored breath tasted of the metal that was filling my lungs. I can barely keep my arms up to guard my already crippled torso. But, I have to push on. I have to win. Yea, I’m barely standing, but so what?
I step back and almost trip over my own desperation to escape. I look him in the eyes and he puts his hands down and smiles, telling me to take a moment. We’re ten minutes in and the pressure of the next five minutes is starting to weigh on me. I charge him and as I get within his wingspan, he hits me with a hard right jab to the nose…
I’m in the hospital, now staring at a different white surface than I am used to seeing. My pants are folded up on the table and I scramble to grab my wallet from my pocket. It’s empty. I had lost it all. I fall back and stare again at the white ceiling which becomes to me as bleak as my own thoughts. The lump in my throat now feels like a D battery chilling out on my larynx. The nurse comes in and tells me I have a severe concussion and that I had been in a coma for days. But, I don’t care. My life is over, anyway. I stay motionless on the hospital bed, thinking about my situation, drifting into sleep. The nurse comes in and jars me awake, telling me that if I fall asleep, irreparable damage could be caused to my brain. She stays for a while before going to her next room. I feel sleep looming over me like the reaper on an old man’s last days. As weariness envelops me and my eyes begin to droop, I hear the hoarse-voiced retort to the nurse’s warnings creep out of my throat…
So what?

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