Doc Holliday's Last Christmas:
Leadville, Colorado, 1886:
a Ciara Shuttleworth oil painting
THE GREAT NATIONAL WOMEN'S PRIZE FIGHT SERIES
A BARE KNUCKLES TOUR
PURELY AN EXHIBITION
AN ADDED EDUCATIONAL LECTURE
THE CELEBRATED, ERUDITE, AND PARAMOUNT
SCHOLAR OF CLASSIC PUGILISM
FROM THE GREEKS TO THE PRESENT
DR. JOHN H. HOLLIDAY
It is the sixteenth round. Ballerina Sabina
has Viking Clara in a headlock. Sabina is tall,
lank, leathery, a Nordic blonde from north
of Minneapolis, a she-wolf with a long reach.
Clara, also from Minnesota, some farm town,
enjoys buxom opulence. She is in rude health,
shorter than Sabina, pretty, if bulge-lipped.
Clara is languorous, but with splendid hand speed,
sure-footed. Doc has humped each of his
Belles of the Ring, has roistered
the larger portion of a night with both at once.
The Omaha saloon they are in is hot and humid,
and the girls are sweat-drenched, woozy.
The crowd, full of tonsil paint,
shouts for more action than this slow waltz.
Why? Why are we in this game? asks
Turkey Creek Johnson, Doc's partner.
Simple. Doc, while on a run from a blow-up
with Big Nose Kate, won the girls' contracts
from Maxie Flengle in a Denver poker game.
Jesus bleeding Christ, why? asks Creek.
Doc pours more whiskey into Creek's glass,
says, Because, dear friend, there is
so much emptiness to explore... or inhabit,
one year at a time until moist lungs kill me.
Doc has fought the girls in Dodge City,
Pueblo, Wichita, just outside Des Moines,
plus Emporia, and it has gone fine,
except in Topeka where the harpies marched
against them. Even paying the girls
twenty percent each, after expenses,
has allowed for a tidy profit.
There are four more stops before Minneapolis
where Doc reckons he'll dissolve the game.
But a gloom has settled over him, a thought,
that at a certain age many men turn
viciously on what they had hoped to love
and be loved for loving. Doc cannot
reconcile his melancholy with how
this amusement has rallied his health.
It's a bawdy crowd. The girls are
in bloomer dresses, ivory organza layered
over organdy, costumes designed to break
apart at the climax of the exhibition.
The girls are rehearsed to cease punching
and to wrestle at Doc's signal, to hold poses
when there is that special moment of silence
when the mutton-heads scan for nobility.
Bare of costumes then, the girls feign
shock for a few beats. Then one simulates
a haymaker knockdown punch.
It is scripted. Two scraggy-haired beauties
in full naked glory, a scene from Sparta.
Then a corker of a right hand lead.
It is the sixteenth round and the girls
are winded, tugging, and pushing.
Doc tips his hat, the nudity signal.
But the girls ignore him. Suddenly
Clara unleashes an uppercut that staggers
Sabina. Jesus Christ, Creek says.
Clara follows up with a pair of straight lefts
and the front row drunks are blood-splashed.
Sabina chops down on Clara. The girls are
not pulling punches. Each whirls off pairs
of combinations: left-right, left-right.
It is full tilt. Creek shakes his head,
says, Maybe we should open a prizefighting
academy, in New York... or even Paris.
It is a serious row, zinging jabs,
blood gushing from mouths, each girl
displaying true mettle. They separate,
stare at each other. The crowd yells,
Kill the whore and Strip the Ballerina.
What are they thinking? asks Doc.
Creek reveals the girls are no longer
set on farming together in Duluth country,
that the course of true love never runs smooth.
Creek says to hell with them, he and Doc should
hold try-outs in New Orleans or Chicago
for new girls, order costumes from the days
of Rome, get French postcards to sell,
maybe flog gallons of Sagwa at each bout.
Doc says, No, let's pay them off,
get back to Dodge and winning at poker.
Just then the sinewy Sabina clobbers
Clara with a resonating head blow.
Clara is stretched out in a wagon
behind the saloon, not far from dead.
A policeman listens to Doc explain the temporary
and minor effects from such concussions.
Sabina, weeping and snotty and broke-handed,
rips the gauzy bloomer dress away from
Clara's still body, screams at the onlookers,
This is what you bought seats for, ain't it?
Well, have a look. Have a gander,
you stockyard-smelling bastards.
The policeman orders Doc to get Clara
to a hospital or just out of Omaha,
he doesn't care, tells Doc he is a pimp
as he buttons fifty dollars into his uniform
jacket pocket. Creek bottles the policeman
on the head twice and he goes down.
And the moon is huge and orange on the Iowa
side of the Missouri River as Creek steers
the wagon north, Sabina at his side mewling,
Clara cold in the back, fists curiously
clenched, with a right hand lead toward
paling stars. Doc is trailing, half drunk,
half asleep on a carbon-colored horse.
Doc calls to Creek, You said Clara could
take a punch. And Doc snarls at Sabina,
Stop blubbering. We'll bury her Christian.
-- for J.V. Brummels
This poem first appeared in Flyway (Volume 8.3, Spring 2004), edited by Stephen Pett and Joe Capista.
The life of gunslick Doc Holliday comes to us in fragments of fact and myth. This poem arrived out of shards of fact. It interested me that Holliday's world, like our heart's country, was tempered and twisted by chronic disease, moronic violence, and ambitions locked to devoted, if half-cocked, readings of Sappho, Catullus, and Lucretius. Doc Holliday was wonderfully complex: dentist-shootist, goldsmith-aphorist, Christian-existential gadfly, gentleman-rascal. He must have had some coyote blood in his arteries. Oh, what tricks to be played and suffered.