Knuckles Nicky Nunez had won the Ultimate Fighting Championship Middleweight World Title at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena only three hours before pulling into the Jackpot Diner’s parking lot. Every part of him throbbed. Raul Ferro, a third-degree Jiu-Jitsu black belt and K-1 Grand Prix finalist, had beaten the brakes off him for two rounds. An elbow from guard had broken Nunez’s nose. A standing right hook split open his eyebrow. Before the third round, Nunez had thought, Hell with it. I’m goin out on my shield. Ferro showboated, his hands near his hips, chin out, and Nunez caught him in the temple with a left hook, wobbled him, and followed up with a barrage of punches to the head and body. As Ferro tried to circle away, a head kick sent the champ crashing face-first to the mat.
Las Vegas sports books were furious. The championship belt sat in Nunez’s trunk. His eyebrow stitches itched. His nose felt like a Bryce Harper line drive had struck it. I’ll probably get a 90-day medical suspension, he thought. And Ferro’s already callin for a rematch. For tonight, though, Nunez ruled the world, at least at one hundred and eighty-five pounds.
Limping and wincing and grunting, he entered the diner and took his usual seat near the restrooms, his back to the wall.
Milly, the fifty-something server who always seemed to be on duty, approached. Steak and eggs, she said. Short stack. Hash browns with tomatoes and peppers. White toast, dry. And two glasses of water.
You know it, he said.
I hear you won. I guess we won’t see you in this dump much.
He winked. I ain’t makin that kind of money yet.
You look like you got hit by a train, Milly said, winking back.
With its huge windows and red faux-leather booths and barstools that might have been new in the Eisenhower days, the Jackpot would not have looked out of place in an Edward Hopper painting. Its food was cheap and greasy, its coffee like battery acid, its hygiene questionable at best. Dusty ceiling fans swirled overhead. Still, Nunez loved it. Nobody bothered him here, even when he lost.
That’ll change, he thought. Everybody wants a piece of the champ.
Normally, the place reeked of burnt potatoes and week-old grease and desperation, but tonight it smelled sweet, like spring gardens. Nunez stood up and walked around the bar, searching for the source. A man stared at his phone and sipped a soda in the back booth. He wore a coat and loosened paisley tie, his top shirt button undone. He might have been thirty-five and looked like an accountant or bank teller. In the next booth, a woman stared at the man with the kind of concentration you saw at weigh-in staredowns. Her pony-tailed caramel hair bisected her long, tan neck. Despite the heat, she wore long sleeves. A pair of heavy work gloves lay on the table. Piled into the seat opposite her, a bushel of flowers with six-pointed purple blooms. She turned and said something to a server, revealing an aquiline nose, a strong chin, full lips, no makeup.
Nunez watched her, puzzled, until she turned to her meal. Then he went back to his booth. Milly came over and leaned down, conspiratorial. She’s been coming in here for three weeks. We call her Flower Child.
What’s her deal?
She sells them on the street. They’re hyacinths.
Huh, he said. Hyacinths.
Go talk to her.
She was lookin at that other dude.
They’re sometimes here at the same time, but they never sit together or talk. Milly appraised Nunez’s face. Now that I think about it, you might want to wait a couple days.
I’m still pretty, Nunez said as Milly walked off. She laughed and gave him a thumbs-up.
Hyacinths, he thought. I like that word.
Driving to his apartment on Arroyo Grande, Nunez’s whole body felt heavy, the sum of all he had put it through, not just the fight but the training, a brutal weight cut, the adrenaline dump. He needed a hot shower and sleep, yet he kept imagining the woman’s face in profile, those purple flowers. He could still smell them, as if they had taken root in his cilia.
Then he saw her walking up ahead, her arms full of hyacinths. She wore jeans and work boots and the gloves he had seen on her table. Nunez’s heartbeat quickened. His palms grew sweaty. Stop it, he thought. You’re a cage fighter, not a kid whose balls ain’t even dropped yet. Go home.
And yet he turned on his hazards and pulled over to the curb, where he crawled along beside her and rolled down the passenger window. She looked at him, eyebrows raised, still walking.