I bet it’s hard for some people not to be jealous of Madison Smartt Bell.  He published his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, in 1983 when he was only 25.  Since then he has published 20 more books and has been named a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for All Souls Rising. Additionally, in 2008, Madison was awarded the Strauss Living Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Aside from all the awards, Madison has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he plays guitar, and he sings like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash.  And let us not forget that  Richard Avedon took a very cool photo of him once for The New Yorker!

You have just left work for the night, backpack slung over your shoulder as you make your way back to the car. It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark, the early spring air already laced with the coming summer’s humidity, and as you walk a fresh patina of sweat fills the void between your T-shirt and your back. Although the nightclub you work at is closer to the Canal St. side of the French Quarter, you habitually park on the far side off of Esplanade Ave., congratulating yourself on once again outfoxing not only the overpriced parking lots but the draconian New Orleans meter maids.

Four nights a week you make the half-mile or so trek each way down Decatur St. You find the stroll allows your mind time to unwind from the stress of work, and if it needs assistance, well, there are plenty of good bars along the way. The boisterous tourist crowds have largely vanished by this hour, and the few individuals you encounter are service industry employees like yourself, off the clock and looking for a little fun. You’ve got an early afternoon meeting with one of your professors, though, and a few blocks past Jackson Square you turn onto a darker cross-street, hoping for a short cut.

As you come round the corner a knife dances out of the dark, headed for your face.

At this point in your life you’ve been studying martial arts for just over a decade, and it is this and only this that prevents the knife from embedding itself in your cheek. Out of reflex you sidestep and the blade stabs the air where you just were. Only as it passes do you recognize it for what it is: a mid-sized hunting knife, single-edged.

Because of the darkness and the adrenaline invading your system like the Visigoths entering Rome, you get only an impression of your attacker out of the corner of your eye. The image is one of a scarecrow, dark-skinned, dirty clothes barely clinging to his scrawny tweaker frame.

He withdraws the knife and strikes again, this time slashing the edge outwards in an arc. In the movies this is always accompanied by a whistling sound effect, but in real life it is quieter than a whisper. You dodge again, backwards this time, nearly stumbling at the edge of the curb.

You spent some time on Maui when you were sixteen, learning Filipino knife-fighting techniques from an older Hawai’ian gentleman, methods to intercept and disarm, to cut your attacker’s throat or slash the femoral artery with his own weapon, but those blades were only hard rubber, the instructor only simulating fatal strikes and cuts. This is a total stranger trying to knife you to death on a dark street, unprovoked. His strikes are clumsy, but what he lacks in training he makes up for in aggression.

If he really knew how to fight, you’d be dead already.

You have a knife of your own, a two-inch lockback with a serrated edge folded away in the front pocket of your jeans. If you could get it out it would even the odds significantly. If only there was time, and you weren’t at this point operating entirely on adrenaline and muscle memory.

He lunges in and stabs again, this time aiming for your torso, and this is when your body slips into the defense. You get the footwork right, stepping off to his outside, raising your right arm to block the blow and entrap his knife hand even as your left comes around to strike the humerus.

This is not a fantasy fight, or a video game, or the carefully choreographed ballet of an action film; this is spontaneous, brutal violence in the real world, and nothing goes perfectly. Your block is textbook, but as you lock his wrist up you feel something slip against the meat of your forearm and a trail of warmth sliding towards your elbow.

His wrist feels almost like a chicken bone in your grip.

Your aim is a bit off on the counterstrike as well. Meaning to hit the pressure point just above the elbow, you bring your left arm down in a hammer strike dead on the center of the bone, and there is a sickening crack, more felt than heard, as it shatters. Your grip on his wrist must be stronger than it seems, because at the moment of impact it breaks as well. You hear, but do not see, the knife clattering to the pavement.

Your attacker screams, a cry of pain almost childlike in intensity. It’s loud enough to be heard for blocks. Clutching his ruined arm, he bolts away in the general direction of Bourbon St., deeper into the Quarter.

The entire encounter has taken maybe a handful of seconds.

You stand on the street corner, watching the space where he vanished, forcing yourself to take slow, measured breaths. Your chest feels as though a young Ginger Baker is using your heart for a drum solo, and you need it to stop, it has to stop, it’s actually starting to hurt.

Your hands, to your mild surprise, aren’t shaking.

While bending down to retrieve the bag you don’t remember dropping, you retch up the minimal contents of your stomach in a nasty green sluice. It is only now you realize you are bleeding, crimson drops mingling with the other bodily fluids at your feet. The cut on your arm appears shallow, but there is a slick of blood running from your elbow to your fingertips.

Fumbling with your cell phone to call the police, you notice it has been less than five minutes since you last checked the time. You rush through your report to the dispatcher, your mouth trying to move as fast as your heart. She tells you to wait, a unit will be coming as soon as one is available. When she asks if you need medical attention you tell her no.

While waiting for the police to arrive you step into the bar on the opposite corner, a place you frequent enough to be on a first name basis with most of the staff. The bartender gives you a beer without being asked. When you try to give him some money he tells you to go fuck yourself, then hands you a clean bar towel with ice for your wound. You drink the beer so fast you hardly taste  it. After two more your heart finally begins to slow down.

It takes the cops half an hour to arrive. They are both overweight and ruddy-faced, and behave as though it’s an inconvenience to be dealing with you. One takes your statement while the other collects the knife in a plastic evidence bag. When you describe your attacker the one with the bag snorts. “Fucking junkies,” he says. They have you sign your statement, tell you that they’ll keep an eye on the hospitals in case someone with a broken arm comes in, that they’ll contact you if there are any further developments. You never hear of any.

You make it back to your car without further incident, sticking to the well-lit streets. On the drive home you realize you have just survived your third–and most violent–mugging since moving to New Orleans. You wonder what that means.

In your apartment you sit in the shower until the hot water runs out. The retreating adrenaline has left your body feeling sacked and pillaged. You clean and dress your wound with the first aid kit you keep under the sink. The cut is shallow, and you close it with adhesive butterflies and a large bandage. It will heal into a thin but noticeable scar.

Your hands will remember the echo of human bone snapping like a twig between them for years to come.