Sunday, July 12, 2009

Short Story Sunday VII


The Prizefighter By Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Copyright by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

Looking at him up close and personal for the first time, practically stubble to stubble with our most intimidating scowls presented as greeting, my strongest impression is that he’s just a kid. A kid who is packed solid with muscle, no doubt about that, and with several inches of height advantage over me, as if his youth and superior athleticism weren’t advantage enough. His eyes glimmer with confidence, as is to be expected. He is being touted as the next big thing in the boxing game. His father was a top contender back in the day, so the kid even has pedigree over me, my own father tops at nothing except being a louse. I actually sparred with the kid’s father a few times when I was about the age that his son is now. How’s that for irony? The kid’s father was a class act, but the heavyweight division was loaded with talent at that time, and he wasn’t quite good enough to win a title despite a handful of game efforts. What the father could not accomplish, most people in the know are predicting that the son will manage within a year or two. The path to the top laid out before him is made of gold, just like the Olympic medal he won for his country shortly before turning pro. Before that, he was a Golden Gloves champion. Tonight the kid is looking to go 20 – 0 as a professional fighter, at my expense.

For him this fight is just a tune-up. He’s being groomed for great things, his career carefully handled to make him as marketable as possible. The kid has everything going for him. He possesses rugged good looks that draw numerous female fans to his matches, squealing from seats so close that they earn the privilege of blood splatter on their designer cleavage showing attire. From the interviews I’ve seen him give on television, his charisma is plainly evident. Whether he’s a natural charmer or simply well schooled, the result is that he’s destined to be a star. My purpose on this night is to serve as little more than a speed bump to his ascendancy. The kid has looked flawless in his first nineteen pro fights, due in no small part to a well thought out selection of opponents. He’s won each of his fights by knockout, with nobody lasting past the sixth round against him. I am not considered a threat to this boxing legend in the making. My purpose is to provide a few more rounds for the exhibition of his prowess against mediocrity, before he takes the step up to tougher competition. Not to say that I’m considered chopped liver in this sport. I have a well-earned reputation for the sturdiness of my chin. My record may not be especially impressive, but I have proven that I can take debilitating punches and keep coming back for more. You won’t see me being counted out before the kid has even managed to work up a sweat. Although he’s supposed to beat me easy as a dog can lick himself, my job is to remain standing long enough to test his stamina. After this last small time fight, he’ll move on to opponents with name recognition, then a title shot in the foreseeable future, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll eventually be signing seven figure contracts for pay-per-view extravaganzas. As for me, tonight I’m earning the biggest paycheck of my career, a mere fraction of what the kid is being paid, for one last bout. Then I’ll hang up my mitts and figure out what next to do with myself.

Round One: We move about in circles within our square cage, studying each other’s movements to determine how best to proceed. The kid proves to be a quick study. I soon learn that he possesses a mighty stiff jab, quick as the lash of a whip. His focus is absolute as he watches me like a powerful and dangerous feline licking its chops over helpless prey. Any mistakes on my part will be instantly paid for. I hear the oohs and aahs of the crowd each time my head is snapped back by his gloved fists. This is the largest crowd ever to watch me fight, not that I am the reason they’re here. I am merely the sacrificial lamb. The words of warning earnestly issued by my trainer come to mind. He begged me not to take this fight, especially not on such short notice. Lou even threatened to not show up and be ringside for a massacre. But I know him better than that. At this late stage of my career I am as competitive as I have ever been, but championship aspirations no longer motivate me like during my first decade in the fight game. I understand that I lack what it takes to be great. Yet I can proudly claim that I’ve been making a living my entire adult life doing what I love. How many people can say that? If I had training for anything else more lucrative and less brutal, I could have been convinced to quit five or six years ago, when I first realized that I would never be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, would never raise a gaudy championship belt triumphantly in the air, would never be anything more than a footnote in the careers of men with vastly superior God given talent. With my options at a minimum however, it has simply made the most sense to keep climbing back into the ring. I’ve dished out the best I could night after night, and I’ve taken my beatings like a man. No shame in that.

Round Two: Sometimes there actually is truth in advertising. This kid appears to be the total package in the ring, not just out of it with his megawatt smile that sponsors will soon be waving huge checks at. He’s light on his feet, dancing about me like a cross between Fred Astaire and MC Hammer in those goofy pants he wore back in th day when I wore a younger man’s outlook. The kid’s management has seen to it that he’s learned every combination in the book, and now that he is done feeling me out, he executes each of them with expert precision. His punches slice through the air and thud off my skull with exceptional speed, exquisite timing, and impressive power. He throws and mostly lands three to four punches for every one I’m able to get off. I feel myself bruising less than six minutes into the contest. The kid is unmarked, deliberately choosing when to sidestep my punches and when to swat them away. As the round draws to a close, he connects with an uppercut that buckles my knees. I am not saved by the bell, but I am grateful for it.

Round Three: He takes up where he left off the previous round, unleashing a series of bombs that are mostly blocked by my gloves, elbows, and forearms as I curl up into a protective ball. Apparently the kid thinks he has me hurt and hopes to finish me off immediately, make a customary quick night of it. He has underestimated me though. I used to say the same thing about my ex-wife, Velma, even as I admitted that her disappointment in me was justified. When confronted by her accusations, there was no denying that I had not become the man I once promised to be. It was not a verbal promise, but one strongly implied by the set of my jaw and burning intensity in my eyes when more promising future lay ahead of me than bitter past lay behind. That fire has long since been doused, not all at once, but over the passing of hard years. My greatest failure is not giving the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen the life she deserves. When she settled for me, choosing passion and lust and love over wisdom, I silently vowed never to allow her to regret the decision. But over time it became obvious that my potential would remain mostly unrealized, both as an athlete and as a man. When she informed me that she wanted out of our marriage, I told her she was being shortsighted. I said I’d been put on this earth for one reason, to make her happier than any other man could. I believed this to be true, and I still do. Velma has since remarried. She is now wealthier, more secure in innumerable ways, more content than she ever was with me. But happier? I think not. A jolting straight right hand pushes back my nose with the force of a Louisville slugger against rawhide. Blood spurts out and I know instantly that it has been broken. This make the fourteenth time my profile has been altered in the pursuit of prize money. Each break makes me look a little less handsome, but also a little less like my father, so I have no complaints. I need to concentrate or else I’m going to have my head handed to me. Now is not the time to feel nostalgic over my days with Velma, daydreaming some scheme to win her back. And this is no analyst’s couch, so reflecting about dear old dad won’t do me much good either. I’m at work. I have a job to do. A left hook delivered to my ribcage makes me wince. Although I am loathe to do so, I hook my arms around his and hold on to buy myself a few seconds until the referee breaks up the clinch. This is my least favorite method of self-defense. I find little honor in it. But desperate times call for whatever trick I can most easily pull from my bag. After we’re separated, the kid unleashes nine straight punches that each catch me clean. Very impressive. The kid is quicker than I anticipated. Either that or else my rate of aging has sped up overnight, a fate which has befallen much better fighters than myself. Once a boxer’s reflexes have abandoned him, the ring is the last place in the world he should be. The bell mercifully rings and the kid gives me a smug look before returning to his corner. I’m starting to not like him.

Round Four: The kid is showboating, doing his best imitation of the Ali shuffle, tossing in some Sugar Ray Leonard wind-up punches like those thrown at Duran in their no mas fight for good measure. He’s keeping his arms insultingly low, dangling them like showpiece jewelry, but either he is too quick or else I’m too slow to make him pay for it. Trying to humiliate me may earn him points with the fans, and maybe even with the judges. But I am not impressed, or embarrassed, or enraged, or irritated, or amused. The kid can do nothing that I haven’t seen before. I continue to stalk him, moving forward with bad intentions, searching for an opening that I fear I no longer have the ability to find. Along with my trainer Lou and everyone else who follows the sport, I considered myself overmatched against this kid right from the start. I had actually considered my previous fight to be my last, not that the occasion called for any press conferences, me being no more than an anonymous club fighter, a journeyman in the final stage of his journey. Yet I could not resist when his people contacted me a few days ago about being a late substitute for the opponent who had pulled out due to injury. They offered me more money that I’d ever been paid for a single night’s work, and I was sorely in need of quick cash, even more so than usual. My mother had passed away less than twenty four hours earlier. The kid’s handlers didn’t know this, otherwise they may have left me alone to grieve, not that I had much grieving in me. My mother and I never got along much, in truth, she was one of the most horrible people I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing, which is saying a lot considering my line of business. Still, she is the only mother I’ll ever have, and as her only kid, that makes me responsible for her final purchases – a casket and headstone. The few hundred dollars stuffed under my mattress would not have paid for much. So I took this fight, agreed to one more payday in order to do right by my mother, may she rest peacefully in Hell. A right cross catches me flush on the jaw and I drop to one knee. I pop up quickly and smack my gloves together a couple times while taking a standing eight count, letting the ref know that all is fine and dandy. It was just a flash knockdown from a punch I never saw coming. I’ve been in 118 pro fights, won forty-six of them, had twelve draws, and been on the losing end of the rest. That’s sixty times the other guy’s hand has been raised in victory over me, for those who don’t feel like doing the counting. I’ve been knocked to the canvas more times than I care to recollect, but I’ve gotten back up on every occasion. Ten times that I’m still pissed off about, referees decided I was taking too much punishment and wrapped their arms around me, declaring my opponents the winners by technical knockouts. I’m not a fan of technicalities. I know deep down that none of those guys would have been able to take me off my feet and keep me down for a count of ten. I’ve never been counted out in a fight, and I sure as hell don’t intend to let it happen my final time in the ring. Let the judges award this kid the decision for his efforts. I will be fine with that, just as I’ve been fine with decisions made in the other guy’s favor fifty times before. But if the referee tries to end this fight prematurely, that will make two guys in the ring I’ll be going after. I’m determined to make it to the final bell tonight. The kid lets loose a flurry of wild punches, once again thinking he has me right where he wants me, that one more solid connection will be my undoing, once again thinking wrong. Two seconds before the bell rings I catch him clean on the chin, causing him take a step back, easily my best punch of the night. He isn’t hurt, but I do see a flustered expression on the kid’s face, him no doubt wondering what’s keeping an old timer like me up. We’ve now both tasted a portion of what the other is capable of dishing out. A boxing match doesn’t truly start at the opening bell, but rather, at the point when both men have earned the respect of the other. This fight is now officially on.

Round Five: For the next three minutes the kid demonstrates his award winning talents to the delight of the crowd, peppering me with blows from every conceivable angle. Both of my eyes are swelling shut. I keep spitting blood to get the salty, nauseating taste out of my mouth. I feel my will fading, sense that the kid’s strength and prowess are growing by the minute along with his confidence. He didn’t appreciate the shot I landed at the end of the previous round, and he’s making me pay for it. This fight is being televised by a local cable station. I wonder if Velma is watching. Of course she isn’t. She never came to my fights when we were together, why would she watch now? To see me suffer? Perhaps. No, that’s my frustration talking. Velma was never cruel, only disappointed to the point of complete exhaustion that my undying love for her was all I ever had to offer, and perhaps a little saddened that this was not enough. The kid unloads a sweeping roundhouse punch that hits like a wrecking ball squarely on my jaw. I am unmoved, left in a debilitated daze, but one that my adversary fails to detect. Rather than moving in to finish me off, he hesitates in awe that his best punch has failed to lay me down. Planted in his mind is a new notion never before experienced in the ring – doubt. Neither of us throws a punch for the remaining few seconds of the round that I have miraculously survived. Another battle goes to the kid, yet I still hold slim hope that the war will be mine.

Round Six: He is growing arm weary, having thrown far more punches up to this point than he has ever thrown in a fight before. After easily controlling the pace for the first minute of the round, his punch output sharply decreases as he looks to rest. I can throw my own punches more freely now, most of which I direct towards his body, for they are far more difficult for him to elude than those aimed at his head. Many of them bounce off his biceps and triceps as he covers up. The judges will not award me enough points to win this round, because technically, my punches are not landing. You know how I feel about technicalities. I’m not concerned about getting credit for my labor. I know that if I persevere, operating methodically rather than with eye catching flair, the work I do now will pay dividends later on. Never in my life have I shied away from a hard day’s work. When I first laid eyes on Velma and fell instantly in love, I did not expect to make an overwhelming first impression on her, and this expectation was met. It took several months for me to wear her defenses down, earn a first date, show her that my heart was pure and intentions were true. I did not falter, kept my eyes glued to the prize until eventually, the sight of me began to make Velma smile. That’s when I knew I had her.

Round Seven: These are uncharted waters for the kid, being dragged out beyond six rounds. He’s now in the longest and toughest fight of his career. Again he dominates the first minute of the round, clowning around while punishing me to demonstrate his superiority. I’m having trouble seeing the punches that I could not avoid even when my vision was clear. Most of them land, yet they lack the pop and sting that characterized them earlier. After sixty seconds, his pace slows once more. Again I attack, starting to land with some consistency. Most of the scars on my body are older than this boy, yet he is the one with labored breathing while I’m just beginning to come on strong. He catches me with a wicked right cross. I counter with a left hook of equal emphasis. Our first legitimate two sided exchange. I’m starting to enjoy myself.

Round Eight: The kid initiates the action with a blur of firepower that makes it seem as if he is part spider, wailing away at me with eight arms while I hopelessly defend with only two. I finally respond by unloading an uppercut into his midsection, causing him to back away, not proud or smart enough to hide the fact that I’ve hurt him. I step forward and he continues to retreat. The kid is on the run. He’s not invincible after all. He is made of flesh and blood just like me, and he can be made to suffer just as I have suffered. I begged Velma for another chance, but my pleas were in vain. Just as they were whenever I pleaded with my mother to stop drinking and to stop letting random strangers into her bed, into our home. Just as they were when I pleaded with my father years earlier to stop hitting her. But I never begged or cried when he turned his fists on to me. I took the hits like a man, even though I had not yet reached my teenage years. I swore that one day when I was bigger and stronger, things would be different. I swore that I would kill him. But my wily father, who taught me nothing in life except that I was worthless, which I refused to believe and still do no matter how low I sometimes feel, stole the sweetness of revenge away by ending his own miserable existence. I have backed the kid into a corner. He is unaccustomed to fighting with his back against the ropes. Yet he surprises me with a flurry of accurate punches, proving that the most dangerous animal of all is a trapped one. The fourth punch of his combination is an uppercut that redirects my line of vision towards the building’s ceiling before my eyes fall shut. When they reopen, I see and hear that the referee is deep into his count. I realize that I am flat on my back. The ref has reached a count of six. What am I doing, lying around on the job? Without giving my brain a chance to protest, I scramble to my feet at the count of eight. I am asked if I’m okay and if I know where I am, and apparently the answers I give are satisfactory. The kid is immediately back on me like vultures over a carcass, putting every ounce of remaining energy into his punches. I understand that there is still much time left to go in the round. I also comprehend that one of two things is likely to happen. Either he will take me out, or else he will punch himself out. I do not clinch, I do not run, and of course there is no place for me to hide within the confines of these four posts with ropes stretched taut around them. I simply do what I’ve been doing my whole life, inside and outside of the ring. I take my licks and weather the storm. With ten seconds left to go, I see realization in the kid’s eyes. He will not be able to knock me out, not this round, not this fight, not this lifetime. He is far ahead on points. If he boxes cautiously and intelligently until the final bell, he will be awarded the decision in unanimous fashion. But I will remain standing, and I can see in his eyes that we both feel this will be a victory of sorts for me. I hit him with hooks to both sides of his ribs, then I nail him on the chin, and he grabs hold of me and hangs on for dear life as the round ends.

Round Nine: Once back in my corner, I realize that sitting was a huge mistake. The stool is far too comfortable. Lou asks me if I’m okay, if I wish to continue. I’ve never heard such concern in his voice before, and he’s been in my corner for many rounds, many years, countless devastating punches. I don’t say anything, but I do nod to acknowledge willingness to subject myself to further punishment, which keeps Lou from throwing in the towel. The bell rings and I am once again headed towards the kid, and he towards me. Immediately he takes a big, looping swing with intent to decapitate and end the proceedings. I duck the punch and dig a shot into his kidneys. The last words spoken in the corner by Lou still ring in my ears. “If he catches you clean again, don’t be a hero. Just take a knee, then go cash your check.” This triggers the memory of Velma’s words of departure to me. “I don’t love you anymore, Jack. I’ve been trying to get my love back for the past couple years. But I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of living a lie. I’m tired of being with you. So I won’t be any longer.” The big shot that Lou warned me about arrives. It’s a straight right that hammers me in the mouth, disorienting me, my legs turned to rubber. Although I’m virtually blind anyway from the swelling around both eyes, I amateurishly close them as I throw the final punch of my boxing career. It lands flush on what I instinctively know to be the kid’s temple. I open my eyes, then walk to my corner and look around at the incredulous cheering fans, paying little attention to what’s taking place in the middle of the ring. Next thing I know, my tired and aching body is being lifted to the heavens in congratulations. The referee has finished his count. Victory is mine.

* * *

Two days later I lie in the bed of a seedy (and for using this term, I do apologize to all seeds) motel room. My right arm, the one that recently delivered me to glory, is hung over the side of the bed. Just below the reach of my fingers is a pint bottle of tequila, the remainder of its contents spilling on to the floor. Velvet, the love interest I hired for tonight’s festivities, has one of her legs up on a chair, pulling up a fishnet stocking. She has very shapely legs and was an enthusiastic and flexible bedmate, three qualities I certainly admire. I place her age at roughly the same as my own. In her profession, just like mine, the aging process is a formidable foe that always wins out in the end. I could have chosen a younger girl, but youth does not always triumph over experience, as I just recently proved in the ring. Velvet and I have finished conducting the activities that I paid for, so she is preparing to leave. She is kind enough to tell me that she had a real nice time, a probable lie that I nonetheless appreciate. Yet I say not a word in response. I am not being rude, for I’m a firm believer in chivalry towards women, even those who have sex with strangers for money. After all, I do punch the living daylights out of strangers for a living. What Velvet does seems a considerably kinder contribution to mankind than my own. I do not speak to her because I have lapsed into a coma. At least, that’s what I’m guessing this state of body and mind to be. I am completely immobilized and incapable of speech. Ten seconds ago I was fine, having just experienced what will apparently be my final orgasm. As I lay basking in the proverbial glow, something inside of me turned off. I can see what I’m facing, which is the rather exquisite sight of Velvet getting dressed. I can hear and understand what she’s saying. But I’m as frozen in place as last night’s TV dinner, and I sense it’s only a matter of time until I’ll no longer be capable of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, or experiencing anything. This is the end. Too many punches snuck past my guard over the years. The damage has been increasing fight by fight, and it seems as if the kid finished up the job. In my left hand I clutch a fistful of dollars. Velvet has already been paid, so at least I have the comfort of knowing that I’ll meet my maker without debt. Better men than I could not say the same. Velvet has now left my path of vision. Staring at an empty chair is far less appealing, but I have no choice in the matter. I wonder if she noticed that at my peak of ecstasy, I called out someone else’s name. But Velma is pretty close to Velvet, so perhaps she didn’t notice. Anyway, I doubt that’s her real name. The chair has faded from view. I see only blackness, although it’s possible that my eyes are still open. There’s no way for me to know for sure. The room is silent, the deepest silence I have ever experienced. I may be alone, or perhaps Velvet is still putting herself together. I am unable to tell. But I do know that I haven’t lost all of my senses yet. I still have touch. Either that, or else I’m only imagining the feel of prizefight money in my hand. I try to remember how much cash I have left, but such complex brain functions are beyond me now. I do remember purchasing a nice casket and headstone for my mother yesterday. On the best of days I didn’t like her very much, even though I understood that she had good reason for shutting out love in order to anesthetize herself from any more pain than was necessary. She did give birth to me, so I suppose I owe her something for that. Now we’re even. No debts whatsoever for me. No regrets either. I gave my all in this life. The final result is beside the point. Last night my name was mentioned on ESPN. How do you like that? Maybe they can inscribe what the broadcaster said about me on my tombstone. I hope I have enough money left over to cover it. If not, I’m sure I can afford to have what the ring announcer said inscribed, since it was so concise and matter of fact, yet so eloquently put. And the winner is …

x x x x x

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