An Atlantic First by
After the fight I coughed for a long time, hunched over on a chair beside the ring while Charlie cut my hand wraps off. When he finished he stared at me with his fists on his hips. “For Christ’s sake,”he said. He tossed the soggy wads of gauze into a corner and came back a minute later with a glass of water. It helped some.
A black fighter carrying an “Anaconda Job Corps” athletic bag nodded to me as he walked by. “You look real good out there,”he said. He was wearing a widebrim hat with a plume, patent leather boots that laced all the way to the knee, and a crimson satin shirt. Earlier I’d watched him knock out one of the toughest of the prison boxers, and make it look easy. When he came closer I could smell his sweat.
“You move real good,” he said. He bent forward as he spoke, hands hanging at his waist. “I tole you before, you slim. You stay away from them big fat boys you be all right.”He flipped his palms up and offered them to me. I slid my palms across them. His grin was a flash of white on his shiny, unmarked face.
“You do all right tomorrow,”he said. “You jus keep movin.”Then he sauntered on across the stage, jerking slightly with each step.
“A plume,”Charlie said. “Ain’t that one fancy nigger.”
The man I’d just beaten was a three-time loser named Grosniak. “Armed robbery, grand larceny, and assault with a deadly weapon,” he had recited to me proudly before the fight. He had been out only a week after his second term when he and a friend got drunk and took a Midi-Mart in Billings. The police were waiting for him when he drove up to his house. “Eight years this time,” he explained. “There was bullets in the gun.”
Grosniak’s hair was bristly and unevenly cut and he had a wandering eye that I had kept trying to circle around. The roll of flesh above his trunks was still red from punches. He walked up and stood too close to me.
“I got to admit, you beat me fair and square,” he said. “I dint think you could, but you did.”
“Thanks,”1 said. Sweat was still running down the pale loose skin of his chest and belly, collecting in little drops on the sparse hair around his navel.
“You got a hell of a left hand,”he said. “Your arms are too long for me. I couten figure out how to get inside you. But I’m gonna work on it. Maybe I’ll get another shot at you sometime.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
“I knew you couten knock me out, though. I told you that before. You can pound on me all day, but you can’t knock me out. Nobody’s ever knocked me out.” Dried blood and snot were streaked across his chin and dark red bubbles still sucked in and out of his nose. He was clenching and unclenching his fists. I looked away and started coughing again.
“Get dressed,” Charlie said to me. “It’s getting late.”
“That’s gonna be a good fight tomorrow between you and Gus,” Grosniak said. “He hasn’t lost a fight in four years. That’s gonna be real good to see.”
“Come on,” Charlie said.
“He’s had two hundred fights,” Grosniak said. “He’s won them all by knockouts.” I stood up and Grosniak stepped grudgingly back. He was still clenching his fists and squeezing his walleye open and shut so it looked like he was winking at me. He took a step after me as I passed but Charlie shouldered him out of the way and pivoted to face him, hands quiet at his sides.
“Too bad you’re not in my weight class,” Grosniak said.
“Real too bad.” Charlie said. “I love to watch fat boys go down, they make such a nice splat when they hit the canvas.” He turned and walked on after me.
“Maybe I’ll get a shot at you sometime,” Grosniak called.
“Sucker,” Charlie muttered. We passed through the door into the closet-sized room with a few battered lockers in it. “Why the hell didn’t you take him down?”
“No need,” I said. “I knew I had him.”
“I guess you did have him, you could have knocked him on his ass any time after the first.”
“He’s just sorry,” I said.
“He’s a mean son of a bitch. And that doesn’t have anything to do with it anyway.”
“No point in hurting him,” I said as I turned away. He grabbed my arm and jerked me around to face him.
“Hurting him? What the hell you think you’re out there for?” I tried to pull loose but he clamped down, veins standing out on the back of a hand hard from years of working red iron.
“Boy,” he said, “you better straighten up. You think that Indian’s gonna give you a break if he gets you on the ropes tomorrow?” His face was tilted back and cocked to one side above his stocky body: a tightclamped jaw, a bristly Fu Manchu worn in honor of Hurricane Carter, and a nose that had been redone in rings from Calgary to Salt Lake City. You knew from his eyes that he wanted to be kind, but understood when not to be. i hadn’t knocked Grosniak out because I couldn’t stand the smack of my glove against his rubbery flesh, and his look when my left came for his nose again, too quick for him to stop. In the last round, when he lumbered out with his hands at his waist trying to get enough air into his heavy body, I had hit him only to keep him away.
Charlie let go of my arm. “Get dressed,” he said. “Let’s get out of this place.”
I pulled off the trunks and sweat-soaked cup that five other fighters had used that afternoon and bent over the sink at the end of the row of lockers. The porcelain was covered with gummy green-brown scum and matted with hair. The hot water tap wouldn’t turn. I felt no pain when the water touched my face, so I knew I wasn’t cut. I rinsed handfuls of it down my chest and groin and started shivering. “Charlie,” I said, “did you bring a towel?”
When I turned, Gus Two Teeth, the prison heavyweight champ, was leaning in the doorway. He was still wearing his boxing trunks. A wine-colored stain of acne spread down his neck and across his thick, rounded chest and shoulders. He seemed to be looking slightly to one side of me, and when I nodded I couldn’t tell if he ignored me or didn’t see me. Twice that afternoon I had watched him leap in with a left hook that knocked a heavyweight off his feet. The first man got up and took the eight count. Two Teeth clubbed him back to the mat in seconds. The other man went down half a minute into the fight and stayed there.
Two Teeth pushed off the door with his shoulder and went back outside. I remembered that I was cold, and I dried my face and chest with my jeans and got dressed. When I came out, Charlie was sitting in a corner tying knots in the piece of cord he always carried. Several convicts were standing across the stage. The coach of the Anaconda Club, a threehundred-pounder named Fletcher, had joined them. We knew him from other tournaments, and he had acted as second for both Charlie and me today. He waved when he saw us.
“Looks like Fletcher’s renewing old acquaintances,” Charlie said.
“Why, is he a cop or something?”
Charlie looked at me. “He did three years here,” he said. “I thought you knew that.”
“No,” I said.
“Sure. Blew his old lady away. I remember reading about it in high school.” I watched the boxers and convicts on the stage step out of Fletcher’s way as he strode over to us. He was built to carry his weight—it only added to the impression of his physical power. Charlie’s news did not surprise me.
Fletcher slapped me on the back, which started me coughing again. “You looked terrific out there,” he said. “That Grosniak’s a pretty tough old boy.”
“He’s a meat,” Charlie said.
“Well, he’s no Gus Two Teeth,” said Fletcher. He turned to me. “I’ll be straight with you. I don’t think you can win tomorrow.” He sounded cheerful. “I’ve seen Gus fight a lot of times. I just don’t think you have the experience to take him. But if you stay away from him, maybe you can go the distance. He’s a lousy trainer. Always wins because none of his fights ever go past the second. If you can keep him going, he’ll get tired.” He slapped me on the back again and started down the steps from the stage.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll buy you guys a hot dog.”
Thirty other boxers and coaches were waiting around the small concession stand the prisoners had set up at the back of the auditorium. I didn’t feel like eating, but I drank most of a Coke. After a few minutes two guards came across the exercise yard.
“Everybody here?” one of them asked. He had small shoulders and wide fleshy hips, and his pistol and nightstick seemed too big for him. They clicked together as he moved. He yelled into the auditorium that this was the last call for the boxers to leave. “Anybody still here’s gonna spend the night,” he said. He grinned, and the convicts running the concession stand grinned too.
The guards led us across the exercise yard through the raw, windy twilight. Dead grass sprouted through cracks in the concrete where the snow had blown off. Scraps of rusty chain nets on basketball hoops tinkled in the wind. The fence around the yard was eighteen or twenty feet high, chain link topped with barbed wire, and I could see the guard towers at all four corners of the old brick building, a silhouette in the window of each.
At the end of every corridor was an iron door with an armed guard sitting on a stool behind it. After looking us over, he would press a button and the door would slide back. Nobody pushed to be first through, but nobody lagged behind. Finally we came to the last checkout point, a little booth with an iron grill across the front. The guard examined each of our hands under a fluorescent light for the stamp he had put there when we came in. I was glad I hadn’t taken a shower.
It was almost dark when Charlie and I reached the outskirts of Deer Lodge and passed the last of the signs that read: “Warning—state penitentiary and mental health facility are located in this area. Do not pick up hitchhikers between these signs.” From there we drove eleven flat miles through soggy hayfields to the Highway 12 turnoff at Garrison Junction. The car was warm from the heater and I cracked a window, but the wet air started me coughing again.
“You got tuberculosis or something?” Charlie said.
“Just a cold.”
“We’ll get you some cough syrup in town.”
“Shelley’s got some codeine,” I said.
After a moment he said, “So you’re going over to Shelley’s tonight.”
“I told her I would.” He nodded his head slowly.
We passed an Indian woman walking alone by the road. She was old and hunched over and her ankles were thin. The wind blew her coat open as she turned to watch us, clutching a bundle under her arm. No houses were in sight.
“I think you can take that son of a bitch if you just stay away from him,” Charlie said. “Don’t listen to Fletcher’s crap.” I watched the old lady fade behind us into the dark of the Warm Springs Valley.
“That’s the smallest ring I’ve ever been in, Charlie.”
He shrugged. “That just means you have to work harder. He’s tough, you don’t want to go in and mix it up with him. But you got six inches’ reach on him, and you’re in shape.”
“And he’s got fifteen pounds on me and he’s twice as fast. Jesus, I never saw anybody go at it like that.” The high-pitched drone of the Mazda engine dropped as we climbed a small rise, and then I could see the lights of Garrison far ahead.
When we reached the outskirts of Helena, Chariie said, “Shelley’s, huh?”
“Right,” I said. A few minutes later we pulled up in front of the one-bedroom house she rented in the part of town called Moccasin Flats. The streets were dirt there, and what was left of her fence was always plastered with windblown paper. A cat’s eyes glowed in the headlights, then disappeared into the abandoned chicken house across the road.
“About ten tomorrow, hey?” he said.
“Okay,” I said. He leaned across the seat as I got out.
“You let that woman suck all the juice out of you, you ain’t gonna be worth a hoot in hell tomorrow.” He settled back low in his seat and looked straight ahead.
“I’ll make her sleep on the couch,” I said. He snorted.
“Eat some eggs in the morning,” he said.
The faint smell of marijuana smoke hit me when I pushed open the door, old, as if it was in the curtains and furniture. “Don’t move,” she said, I turned slowly to the corner where she sat cross-legged. She stared at me, pupils dilated in the deepest blue-green eyes I had ever seen, then abruptly began working a pencil across the pad on her knees. “The conquering hero returns home,” she said. The pencil zigzagged swiftly, her eyes still on my face. I tossed my bag on the couch and pulled off my coat.
“Hey,” she said.
“But I’ve got to catch you in your moment of glory.”
“Later,” I said. My voice was sharp. The pencil bounced once on the old plank floor. She folded her hands in her lap and watched me.
“Sorry,” she said. “Your face isn’t smashed up for a change, so I thought maybe you won.” The walls were covered with her sketches and charcoals. In what was supposed to be the dining room a table was piled with palettes and brushes soaking in cans of solution. She had just started painting seriously; I thought her drawings were still far better.
“1 did,” I said. I was tired but I didn’t want to stop moving. “You got any beer?”
She nodded. “Okay,” she said, jumping up. “The sketch can wait.” She put her hands on my cheeks and turned my face both ways, then kissed me. “Tough fight?”
“No,” I said. We kissed again, longer this time, then she led me into the kitchen. She took two bottles of San Miguel out of the refrigerator and laid a huge sirloin steak on the counter.
“Celebrate,” she said. “Victory in the last fight of the season. If you lost you got Buckhorn and tuna fish.”
“Shelley, where’d you get the money for this?”
Her eyes widened in mock surprise. “I keep telling you, I’ve got a sugar daddy.” I snorted, but I thought of all my out-of-town construction jobs. She opened the bottles and raised hers. “To heroes,” she said. There was an edge to her voice.
I took a long drink of beer, so cold it made my teeth hurt, sharp but soothing to my raw throat. “It wasn’t the last fight of the season,” I said.
“Christ,” she said, setting the bottle down. “Don’t tell me you let Charlie talk you into that stupid Golden Gloves thing.”
I shook my head. “Tomorrow.”
“This was just eliminations. I’ve got to go back for the finals.”
She turned away. “I thought maybe we could do something tomorrow.”
“If I hadn’t won.” After a moment she shrugged. When she turned back she was looking at me from a long way away.
“So how do you want your steak?”
1 came up behind her and put my arms around her. Her body was tight and resisting. “Look, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not too crazy about this either.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“I told you, I won.” She reached out to the bottle on the counter and drew a face in the moisture that coated it. “I’ve got to go back and finish,” I said.
“Who’s going to give a damn if you don’t?” I felt her shrug again. “I’ll tell you who,” she said. “A bunch of jerks who can’t get off on anything but beating each other’s brains out.” She leaned back against me and stroked my hand that still rested on her belly, warm and tight under my fingers. “You hate it, don’t you?” she said. Her hair smelled of lemon and it tickled my nose as she moved her head back and forth. “I mean, I guess I could even see it if you got paid.”
“That’s not the point,” I said.
“So what is the point?” She reached up and caressed the back of my neck. “If you’re trying to prove something, lover, I can think of better ways.” She straightened up and I let her go. “How do you want your steak?”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Medium.”
After dinner I took a long hot shower and stretched out on the bed. It was too short for me, so I always ended up sticking my feet through the iron posts at the end. The phlegm rose in my chest and I started coughing again. The stereo was playing quietly in the next room; I could hear the dark rhythmic chords and lonesome harmonica of Blonde on Blonde, and during breaks in the music, the bubbling of her water pipe.
She pushed open the bedroom door and lit the kerosene lantern on the dresser. I watched her take her earrings off, burnished copper teardrops that glowed dully in the flame light. Another night I would have asked her to leave them on.
“My God, you sound awful,” she said. She half turned toward me as she slipped her shirt off.
“Do you have any more of that codeine?”
“I think so.” She rummaged through a drawer and came up with a small brown bottle. The stuff was cherry-flavored, but you could tell there was something under the sweetness. Shelley put on a robe and walked down the hall to the bathroom. I watched a small dark shape move patiently, in silhouette, down the wall. It fluttered toward the candle.
A cold ache still touched the base of my nose when I remembered the Samoan at the Golden Gloves—that first jolt to my ribs, then opening my eyes to the lights that hung from the auditorium ceiling. The referee was on “three.” I got up, and then got up again, seeing for the first time the rust-colored stains on the mat, trying to follow the grinning, kinky, blue-black head. But, as in the dream I had when I was younger, I could not make my arms move. There comes a moment when you realize you are not what you have thought. I drove home that night with three broken ribs and a nearly dislocated jaw. What had happened, I never wanted to happen again, but not because of the pain.
When Shelley came back she smelled of clean warm skin, scented soap, and toothpaste. She draped her robe over a chair and said, “Lie on your stomach.” She straddled me and slid her cool hands up and down my back, pressing her thumbs into muscles sore from hours of tension. Later she said, “Turn over.” I watched her sway above me while she kneaded my shoulders and then my chest. In the dim room her face looked dreamy, absorbed in the movement of her hands. When she leaned forward her hair brushed my skin.
After a while she rested her check against my belly. I stroked her hair, rounding the curve of her skull with my fingers. “What’s the matter?” she whispered. It was a long time before I answered.
“That Indian’s going to beat the crap out of me tomorrow,” I said.
“Then why are you going?” She sat up and put her hands on my shoulders. “For God’s sake, what’s the matter with you? Ten minutes ago you’re coughing like you’re going to die, and now you tell me you’re going to drive all the way to Deer Lodge to get beat up.” She pressed me back into the bed until her face was inches from mine. “Don’t go,” she said. The scent of perfume was strong from the soft place where her jaw met her neck.
“Charlie’s coming for me tomorrow at ten,” I said. She jerked back upright.
“The hell with Charlie,” she said angrily. “Some friend, always dragging you off to fight. Call him and tell him you’re not going tomorrow. We’ll stay in bed all day. You’re sick anyway. Tell him he can fight the damn Indian himself. Call him.” I didn’t move. She slid off me.
“Then I’ll call him.” Her feet thumped on the wooden floor.
“No,” I said. I hooked my arm around her waist and pulled her back. She twisted my fingers.
“Let me go, goddamnit!” She broke free and strode across the room.
“Wait,” I said. “I’ll call him in the morning.” She stopped, silvery white against the dark passageway.
“Promise?” she said. I hesitated. She jerked the door open.
“If I’m still coughing like this I won’t go.”
“Promise me,” she said. “Say it.”
“Now you’re talking sense.” She flopped back down on the bed and stretched across me. “Honey, when are you gonna understand, you’re just not a fighter.”
My hand stopped moving on her back.
“You’re just not like Charlie and those others,” she said. “That’s okay. You don’t have to be. I like you anyway.”
After a while she said, “I’m sorry, I guess I shouldn’t have said that.” She watched me for a minute longer, then turned so that her back was snug against me. Later her breathing became regular. For a long time I listened to the ticking of the pendulum clock and explained to Gus Two Teeth and Grosniak and all the other prisoners who lay alone in their cell bunks night after night why I could not make love to this woman.
The weigh-in room was small and crowded, though not so many boxers were there the next morning. Five or six prisoners were standing by the door joking with each other and with the guards. Grosniak was there with Gus Two Teeth, who was wearing prison grays and a navy stocking cap, like a logger. They stopped talking when Charlie and I came into the room, f nodded to Grosniak but he just stared at me. Two Teeth again seemed to be looking to one side.
I took my clothes off, laid them on a bench, and wrapped a towel around myself. The man at the scale put his hand on my back to help me up the four-inch step. “What do you think it’ll be?” he asked as he slid the balance weights around.
“One ninety-three,” I said.
“One ninety-three on the nose,” he said. “You look bigger than that.” Two Teeth and the convicts laughed at something one of them said. I started to step into my jeans.
“You might as well just put your trunks on,” the man at the scale called over. “The fights are almost ready to start.” He watched me while I waited for Charlie to get some trunks. I wrapped the towel around me again.
Charlie came back with a cup and a pair of green trunks. I put them on. “Come on,”he said. “I’ll wrap your hands.” When we got to the door one of the convicts was blocking it, his back to us. Charlie said, “Excuse me, pardner.” The man turned and stared at us, and one by one all the other convicts turned too, and then my eyes met those of Gus Two Teeth. They were black and shiny and calm, set deep in an acnescarred face the color of an old saddle. I had never felt so white.
Out in the gym I put my robe on and Charlie and I sat across from one another, me facing the wall. He took two rolls of thin gauze and a roll of white athletic tape from his gym bag. I watched his hands as he pried out the little piece of metal that held one of the gauze rolls together. His fingers were short and thick, his knuckles misshapen.
“Left hand,” he said. I rested my left forearm on my thigh and extended the hand. With his Buck knife he cut a two-inch slit in the roll of gauze and hooked it around my thumb. He started wrapping the gauze around my wrist. After each turn he would pull it snug and say, “Okay?”
“Okay,” I would say. Charlie worked slowly and carefully. Little beads of sweat were forming on the skin just below his hairline. I could see the carotid arteries pulsing in his throat. He opened his mouth slightly each time he inhaled, and his nostrils distended as he forced the air back out, making a small whistling sound. I looked over his head at the wall.
“Too tight?” he asked. I flexed my fingers.
“No,” I said. I was having trouble taking deep breaths.
Someone yelled, “Let’s have the flyweights and lightweights out in the auditorium.” I could hear the job corps fighters get up and walk across the gym. Then it was quiet.
Charlie cut strips of tape with his knife and ran them down between my fingers. “How you feeling?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said. For the first time I noticed a bald spot on top of his head. I started to tell him about it, but then decided to wait. The skin of his scalp was pinkish white, paler than the skin of his face. I could smell the morning’s coffee on his breath.
Far away a bell rang.
“You get the chance,” Charlie was saying, “throw your right. It’s your best punch. Be careful, though, he’s got a hell of a left hook. You drop that right too much, you’ll set him up. Use that circling hook you worked on that kid in Lewistown that time. Use that a lot. But mostly jabs, and if you get a good clean shot, throw your right.”
My throat was dry. When I swallowed there was a sour taste. “Charlie,” I said.
He glanced up anxiously. “Too tight?” he said. He loosened the tape between my fingers. “That better?”
I looked into the eyes with no fear in them. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
When he taped my wrist he said, “Take an easy lap, just to get the blood going. Then I’ll warm your hands up.” I slipped the robe off and trotted slowly around the gym. Someone yelled from the door for the welterweights and middleweights, but they were all out watching the fights. I shook my arms as I jogged.
The auditorium was quiet. The middleweights were about to begin. Since there were no light-heavyweights, my fight was next. All around the ring the boxers and inmates and trainers sat or stood with their arms folded. Some of the boxers were holding trophies. Across the stage, surrounded by other convicts, Gus Two Teeth sat in a chair. He was wearing white trunks and no robe.
“Time to glove up,”Charlie said. He held up a pair of ten-ounce gloves, about the size of ski mittens, still soggy from the last fight. After I got them on, he said, “Better take a couple more shots.” I stood up and started throwing punches at his hands. “Come on, make ‘em snap.” I punched as hard as I could, but there was not much snap. Charlie let his hands down slowly. He looked at me until I met his eyes. His face was grim.
“Remember what I told you,” he said.
They were all watching me as I walked to the ring, the convicts and boxers and people who had come from the outside. I glanced out over the rows of faces but I saw no one I recognized, just cowboy hats and the high-piled hair of the few women. The black fighter with the crimson shirt was nodding and grinning at me. He was wearing a black robe with white stripes instead of the red shirt, but I knew it was him. Someone slapped me on the back and started rubbing my shoulders. I turned and saw Fletcher’s face, the size of a pumpkin, his fat-man sweat oozing out through the dark oily pores in his skin. He was close to me and I smelled cigarette smoke and liquor on his breath. His eyes were laughing.
“Stay in there long as you can, kid,” he said. “We’ll have the towel ready.” Charlie climbed the three short steps to the ring ahead of me and held the ropes apart. I took the first step, the second, the third, and stopped.
I stepped through the ropes.
Behind me 1 heard the referee clear his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen. The feature event of today’s exhibition. The heavyweight championship of this tournament.” There was a pause and a rustle of paper. “From Helena, wearing green trunks, weighing one hundred and ninety-three pounds . . .” My name was called. I heard a few cheers from the audience and some more from around the ring.
“Go git him, Slim,” somebody yelled.
“. . . weighing two hundred and eight pounds, the defending champion of this tournament, Gus Two Teeth!” The crowd hooted and howled, and as the noise died a single male voice screamed, “Flatten that ski jump, Gus!" I heard applause and more yelling.
“Come on out here, fellows,” said the referee. In the center of the ring I stood close to Gus Two Teeth. He was several inches shorter than me and several inches wider, and he had calm black shiny eyes.
The ref was a small man with neat sandy hair and a bow tie. “Punches below the belt,” he was saying above a dull, steady murmur from the auditorium. “Break clean . . . either of you go down, the other goes back to his corner for the eight count . . .” The timekeeper rang the bell three quick times. “Good clean bout. Shake hands and come out fighting.” Gus Two Teeth and I touched our four gloved fists together and turned back to our corners.
“Water,” I said. Charlie got the squeeze bottle into my mouth in a hurry and Fletcher held the bucket up. I swished the water around and spat. The taste was still there.
“Seconds out,” the timekeeper called. Charlie pulled the stool out and I held the ropes and bounced, trying to force air all the way into my lungs. I watched a man in a cowboy hat walk up the aisle of the auditorium. Halfway, he stopped and raised a fistful of popcorn to his mouth.
The bell rang. I turned and trotted out. Two Teeth was already loping around to my right, his fists held loosely in front of his chest, his face exposed. I circled with him. I was stiff and standing up too straight. My arms fell locked into position. I couldn’t keep my eyes off his, but in Gus Two Teeth’s eyes I saw no amusement, nor any hatred, nor fear—only a calmness that told of something I had never felt. We danced around and around that tiny square of canvas, and I felt that at any second my legs would give out under me.
He shifted his weight suddenly and I leaped back, almost against the ropes. He closed the distance and I slashed at his face and jerked to the right. His left hand stung my ear as it brushed by. In the center of the ring again, we circled. I felt him moving closer. I threw my left and it flopped out from me, a thing with no strength or bone. He made no attempt to slip or block it. A fine trickle of blood started from his nose. The skin on his face was drawn back tight over his cheekbones and I saw glints of white teeth at the corners of his mouth. I backed up, almost running, until I brushed the ropes, then threw my left, and this time, before my fist was halfway to his face, he was in the air between us. I didn’t see the punch, but I remember it was like being touched with something very hot.
When I came back everything was almost the same, but I knew I had been gone. I bounced off the ropes with my forearms covering my head and bulled past him, trying to get clear enough to see. When I looked he was there and it landed on my right temple. I was in a corner, crouched, lucky to be stopping some of the punches with my elbows and gloves, because my eyes were down. I knew I had to watch his hands, but I could not make my eyes stay up.
Then a punch to the forehead really hurt me, and somehow I pulled my eyes up to the blur of brown face and brown gloves and brown body that was swirling in front of me. The right hand was coming at me again, and I ducked to my right and caught it on my glove and at that second the face came into focus, looking thoughtful, and I understood that the next punch I took would be the last. My body was twisted far to the right, my hands beside my head. I dropped my knee and drove my fist at the center of those shiny black eyes.
I felt it all the way to my shoulder. The face was gone and nobody was hitting me anymore. I came off the ropes and dropped my gloves enough to take a look. I heard a lot of yelling and the ref was dancing around with his arms out. Gus Two Teeth was across the ring, his back to me. His arms were stretched out over the ropes and he was walking slowly along them. When he rolled around to face me his mouth was open. He didn’t seem to see me.
“Kill him,” a voice was screaming. “Take him! Finish him!” I waited. “For Christ’s sake, GO GET HIM!" I dropped my fists and bounced on my toes. Two Teeth shook his head and straightened up. The ref grabbed his wrists and tugged on his gloves. Two Teeth began to lope again, slower this time. The eyes were not quite so shiny now.
The bell rang.
Charlie was yelling at me before I was halfway to my corner. “For Christ’s sake, you had him! What’s the matter with you?” I dropped onto the stool and he pulled my mouthpiece out and shoved the bottle in. Fletcher held up the bucket but this time I missed and spat onto the pointed toe of his cowboy boot. Charlie was sprinkling water on my chest and talking hoarsely into my ear.
“He’s got a glass jaw,” he was saying. “He’s shook up now. All you got to do is nail him one more time and then finish him off.” The ten-second whistle blew. I wanted to explain, but talking was so much effort.
The next round lasted longer than I’d expected, over a minute. I felt loose and cool. I was moving well and I stung him with several jabs that got the blood flowing from his nose again. But then I planted my feet and cocked my right, and in the time it took my hand to shift three inches he was in the air. The hook dropped me to one knee. The ref had to push him back to his corner while I took the count, and at eight Two Teeth shoved by him and leaped at me again. This time I went down to a hand and a knee, and while I was getting my feet under me something smashed me on top of the head. I rolled onto my back and turned my head from side to side. When the ref reached ten he grabbed Gus Two Teeth’s arm and raised it. The crowd was yelling for Two Teeth and Charlie and Fletcher were yelling at the ref and I got up and walked back to my corner. As I reached for the ropes to steady myself I heard my name called. A gloved hand touched my shoulder and I turned and looked for the last time into those black eyes, almost shy now.
“Good fight,” he said. We put our arms around each other’s waists and someone handed us each a trophy and took a picture.
Charlie was furious as we walked back to the car. “The son of a bitch hit you when you were down,” he said. “He clubbed you on top of the head and drove you to the mat.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “He beat me anyway.”
“You could have knocked him out.”
“That was just a lucky punch,”I said.
“You could have,” he said. “You didn’t go in on him when you had him.” I exhaled slowly into my cupped hands.
“Whatever that takes, Charlie,’ I said, “I just don’t think I’ve got it.”
“Well you better learn, or you’re going to keep on getting hurt.” He unlocked the car door, and I turned for a last look at the old brick building. Flashes of sunlight gave it a warmer color than yesterday, but it was no place I ever wanted to spend any time.
“They still should have given you the fight,” Charlie said as I got in.
“He’d still be the better fighter.”
“You got a funny way of looking at it.”
“I guess I do,” I said. We passed some of the Anaconda boxers getting into a station wagon with Fletcher. The man with the red shirt grinned and waved and I waved back.
“Well, we start working out for the Gloves on Monday,” Charlie said. “You gonna make it?” Main Street in Deer Lodge was empty and closed up tight, without a person or a spot that looked warm; no place to be on a Sunday afternoon in an early Montana spring.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just wait a couple of weeks and try to kick this cold.”I realized that I hadn’t coughed in hours and I took a deep breath. There was only a slight raspiness in my throat.
“You could probably take the state easy,” he said. “Only guy you’d have to beat is that Simmons from Great Falls, and he’s just big and slow like that ape yesterday.”
“I think maybe I’ll just sit the rest of the season out, Charlie,” I said. “See how I feel next fall.”
“The regionals are in Vegas this year,” he said. “That’d be a good trip.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Charlie was quiet for a minute, then he said, “You know, two years ago I went up to Edmonton to fight some spade from Tacoma, and about ten seconds into the first round that little bastard sucker-punched me and knocked me right on my ass. After driving six hundred miles. I laid there and listened to the ref count and I could of got up again, but I was so disgusted I didn’t even try. I thought that was it, my last fight.” We passed the “End Speed Zone” sign at the edge of town and Charlie accelerated to seventy-five.
“You’ll be back,” he said. “It gets in your blood.” He started whistling softly between his teeth, a tune I had never heard.
I put the seat back and closed my eyes. “What time is it?”
“Run me by Shelley’s, will you?” Charlie rolled the window partway down and spat out his gum.
“If you hadn’t been so busy with your old lady last night, you’d have had enough irt you to finish Gus off,” he said.
“That must have been it,” I said.
When we turned the corner at Garrison, the clouds broke and we saw the peaks of the Flint range, high craggy masses of snow that usually stayed hidden from October to May. I had never been up there, but I’d heard about the fishing. The snow would still be deep even in mid-June, and it would be a good day’s climb into the Trask Lakes. I knew I’d find pan-sized cutthroat where the streams emptied in. □