MICHAEL T. SMITH - THE BOXER
Michael T. Smith is an Assistant Professor of the Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University, where he received his PhD in English. He teaches cross-disciplinary courses that blend humanities with other areas. He has published over 60 pieces (poetry and prose) in over 30 different journals.
He had nothing against this man whatsoever. But he tried with every fiber of his being to hit him hard enough to kill him.
The twenty or so photographic bulbs popped as his muscular figure swam over the backdrop of twinkling lights. His sinewy form glowed with a heavy cover of sweat, and time seemed to slow down as his right hook flew through the air.
Despite the padded glove, his opponent’s jaw seemed to crack as his fist made contact. It wasn’t long before his limp body hit the floor. First the jaw. Then the feet. It seemed as if nothing in-between made contact as his dead weight let gravity take over.
The countdown began: One...two...three...four...
He shook his head with a jerking fury and a shower of sweat whipped from his face. His mouth-guard tasted sour, which he only noticed with his body cooling down as he emerged from his semi-crouched position.
With a light sprite in his heels, he danced around the ring, twirling his bulbous hands as he did. His manager always told him he was a fine showman.
The bell rang. And then the referee grabbed his bulging right arm and thrust it into the air. Through the lights, he looked out into the sea of anonymous people, cheering wildly for him, for him: Marcus “The Rock” Price.
The locker room smelled.
They always did.
The quietness was enveloping, causing the metal clanging of the blue locker to echo up and down the room as he opened it. The space seemed hollow to Marcus until the door opened. His manager, a stout man who would only be seen in a top-hat, walked into the room. He always said Frank’s walk looked like a child’s gait on a treadmill just a little too fast for them. “I got another one for you.”
The Rock took a water bottle and squirted a splash onto his face. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me on the one I just won?”
“Yeah.” He took off his hat to scratch his balding head. “The fight’s in two weeks from Sunday.”
“I’m busy in two weeks from Sunday.”
“I know,” his nasally voice croaked out. “You’ll be fighting.”
Marcus dipped his head low. He laughed to himself a sardonic chuckle originating all the way from his trachea.
“What?” Frank thrust his arms out as if trying to catch a piece of wind to float on. “You want me congratulate you on the win? Congratu-freaking-lations. Now let’s talk business.”
“You know Frank, I don’t think we could talk anything else.”
“You know Marcus, I don’t think we should talk anything else.”
Pulling an old T-shirt over his head, Marcus lost sight of Frank for a minute. He noticed a new hole had emerged under his armpit. He let out a stream of wind. “Who is it anyway?”
“Joe ‘The Hurricane’ Stromboli.”
Marcus did a double-take as he was looping his shoelaces. “What are you crazy?”
“No, but you’d be to not take this fight.” His gruff voice always seemed imposing.
“The man’s eight and oh.”
“And you’re five and three, so what?”
“So do the math,” Marcus said flinging his hands in front of his face, now awkwardly close to Frank’s.
“Yeah, I did the math.” Frank spat back. “One grand, all profit.”
“Hmm,” Marcus hummed out. “So….is that two grand before you take your cut? Or one grand that will magically be reduced to one hundred when passed into my hands?”
Frank put a cigarette between his lips despite the gym’s ‘no smoking’ ordinance. “I do believe you’re being sarcastic.”
“I do believe your being evasive.”
Frank shrugged as he lit the coffin nail and sucked in a stream of smoke. “It’s one grand. Are you telling me you don’t need money anymore?”
“You can’t smoke in here Frank.” As usual, it irritated Marcus.
“Do you make the rules?” He huffed out smoke.
“No, but I follow them.”
Frank ran a stubby thumb across his nose. “There’s your first mistake.”
Marcus sat on the bench as the muscles in his leg began to spasm. In truth, his entire body ached. “No.” This only caused Frank to smile. “I’m not doing it.”
Frank’s voice sounded whiney as he shouted. “One-thousand dollars, Marcus. One zero zero zero in cold hard cash. Are you getting me? Are you listening to what I’m saying? It’s a once in a lifetime offer.”
“Yeah, because the poor schlub that fights that animal won’t make it to round 2.”
Frank was never good at hiding his agitation and began to all but shout. “It’ll be a tough match, but Jesus, where’s your fighting spirit?”
“It must have been replaced with common sense, Frank.”
“It must have been replaced with cheap excuses, Marcus. And excuses don’t pay the bills.” The two men stood at full stature and stared each other in the eye, Marcus towering a full foot and a half over his pudgy manager.
“It’s not going to happen, Frank.”
Frank rubbed his forehead below his thinning hair. A migraine appeared to be forming. “Marcus, I’m your manager. You know I’ll take care of you, and I’ll stop the fight if it gets too much. For goodness sake, give it a chance. Don’t sell yourself short,” and with this he picked up even more vigor. “That’s what I’m always saying: you sell yourself short. Is it not?”
“We finished discussing this.”
“We did not.”
Marcus stared at him in silence. Frank’s stout form heaved up and down as he took a cloth out of his pocket and dabbed his moist forehead. His nostrils seemed to flare as he looked up. Marcus closed the locker gently, as if aiming for silence. “It’s a ‘no,’ Frank.”
He then turned and walked away. “Don’t you dare walk out on me.”
Marcus slung his bag over his shoulder and marched out.
“You’ll be back, Marcus Price. So help me God, you’ll be back!”
But Marcus didn’t even turn his head.
At home, a circus of shadows wound around the living room, which didn’t offer much in the way of living. Only a single end-table lamp made up the décor. It was turned on, casting a weak yellow glow on his wife’s face. A knit blanket was pulled up to her chin as she dozed off and on, waiting for him to come home. She perked up upon hearing the sound of his keys plop down into a porcelain flower dish by the front door.
She felt his right hand, so calloused and rough from the ring, touch her shoulders and begin to massage them.
“No more fights,” she muttered half-asleep.
“No more fights.” He paused.
The corner store had dim lighting that always made Marcus’ eyes feel droopy. It had been two weeks since his last fight.
“Twenty-two, fifty-one” The cashier said.
Marcus took out a bandaged hand and rummaged through his wallet, pulling out a wad of one dollar bills. “Put the milk back, please.”
The cashier pivoted to put the milk beside him and twiddled on the register. “Twenty, seventy-four.”
Marcus licked his dry lips. “And the Vaseline.”
With little professionalism, the young kid rolled his eyes and calculated a new tally, which the “Rock” promptly paid then walked out the door. He would go back to the gym that night.
Out of habit, he hit the gym three times a week for a heavy workout. He pushed for what Frank had called a “Slump” – a workout so intense that he would be reduced to a pile of a body at the end of it. A term his manager often used while reclining on some bent-back chair. Further, he often stopped in on his so-called “off” days for a less strenuous exercise regimen.
Naturally, he was a staple at Atreus Gym, a former grocery store whose mats were cracking and whose metal weights showed the polish of frequent use.
What was most revealing of Marcus’ intense disposition towards training was the way he made even the most mundane daily activities into a workout: He would jog to the bus stop; he’d do stretches waiting for a physical; and after shopping, he’d use his grocery bags as a makeshift dumbbells, which is precisely what he did now at eleven at night as he walked over the train tracks to the gym’s back entrance.
He went directly to an old fridge in the back to put in his groceries, where he heard some voices drifting softly to the back room.
“I said don’t worry.”
Marcus peeked his head around the concrete wall. It was Frank chatting with a local lowlife.
An instinct told him to press his back against the cold concrete wall with the painted blue and white stripes to listen to the two men more. He had to strain to hear exactly what they were saying (he thought he suffered some hearing loss in his left ear due to a particularly rough fight two years back.
“I said don’t worry; he’ll fight.” Frank barked.
“If you say so.” The other man had a nonchalant voice that drifted through the empty hallway.
“I do say so.” Marcus instinctively knew they were talking about him. “He won last time.”
“Yes, fighting a nobody named ‘Shirtless Joe’… as we both know.” The lowlife punched this last phrase.
“So they’re in the same weight division with fairly similar records.”
“All the more reason I have this planned out.” Frank said. It was amazing how many words he could fit between his gritted teeth.
“You can’t tell me not to have concerns, Frank, even in this...”
But Frank held up his hand until the other man trailed off and there was absolute silence. He let it linger for some time. Though in a near whisper, he spoke strongly. “It’ll be a clincher.”
“No fight’s a clincher.”
“This one is.”
The other man scoffed. “Nobody is in this business as long as you and claims a fight is a clincher.”
“Exactly.” Frank said with deliberate calmness. The two men stopped and stared at each other for a heated minute. “Don’t you want to ask how I know?”
“Don’t you want to tell me?”
Frank took off his hat and started fanning himself. He mumbled something inaudible, sounding like “...just standing there, jeez.” He picked his ear and flung a bit of earwax on the wall.
“Do tell my good man.”
The other man rolled his eyes. Behind the wall through, Marcus’ heart seemed to skip a few beats...or added a few more. He couldn’t quiet tell.
“Ok, It’s gonna be rigged…”
Frank’s face dropped to a grim expression. “You don’t know a good thing when you see it. Not when it hits you right in the face. I tell you a fight’s gonna be rigged, and this is the response I get?”
Marcus could swear he could hear his own heartbeat beating in his ears. He readjusted and for a moment feared the scrapping of his sweatshirt jacket against the wall gave him away, but then he heard the second man speak.
“What are you going to do?” His tone was a challenge.
“Plaster of Paris in his gloves.” Frank said. “His punches will be as hard as a rock.”
“Yeah, everybody uses plaster of Paris, and how are you going to get away with that?”
“But I already have. I know the boxing inspector. We’re in it together. After the fight, he simply switches out the gloves from my guy with a duplicate pair. I put all my money in this heavenly little basket. So has the inspector.”
The other man sat there silent.
Frank lightly smacked him on his right cheek. “You can thank me later.”
With that he walked away. He didn’t need to say anything else, and the man’s silence said everything he needed to hear.
Marcus was pressing himself against the wall so hard it hurt, even giving his muscular covering. He was trying to take in the information he just heard which made his head swim. He knew what he should do; he should report Frank to the commission. Immediately. Hell, he should call the police.
Yet, something held him back.
He couldn’t sleep well that night. The scene at the gym replayed itself in his mind on a constant replay. He heard every sentence run through his mind over and over until the words took on a nearly religious significance.
He didn’t want to think about religion though.
At about ten the next morning, Frank called him, once again pitching the fight of his life.
The two of them sat eating a spaghetti dinner in their cramped apartment. The sauce was rich and chunky; though, the noodles were always a tad bit beyond al dente, softening to a soupy mush. At times, Marcus even noticed water still sitting at the bottom of the serving tray.
“You’re quiet.” His wife said, drawing him out of a reverie that seemed to take place in his pasta.
“I thought you might appreciate me shutting up for once.” Marcus tried an attempt at humor, showing his crooked teeth in a forced smile.
“Sure.” She said. “But that doesn’t explain why you’re quiet.”
He swallowed, then blurted it out. “I’m gonna do another fight.”
Her fork and knife were the first to answer, clinking down on the porcelain plate in unison. “What?”
“I’m gonna do one more fight, and I know you heard me just say that.”
She spoke slowly. “And I also heard you when you said you weren’t going to do any more fights.”
“Well that was before.” He added. “Before this one came up.”
She pushed away her chair from the table and threw her napkin onto her plate, landing smack dab in the middle of a clump of sauce.
“What? What?” he yelled louder as she climbed the stairs before swinging around in a torrent of anger.
“What do you mean ‘what?’ What do you think ‘what?’”
He couldn’t answer
“‘That was before this one came up.’” She mocked his answer. “I-I can’t believe you, Marcus.” Her east coast accent came through thicker. “What did you think there wasn’t going to be no more fights? That the boxing world would just stop as soon as you walked away from it...or at least said you was going to?”
Her voice was shrill enough to make him silent. As she stormed into the bedroom he wanted to yell at her to wait. But even if she did, he wouldn’t know what to say. And so for a long time, he didn’t say anything.
The following week was tense.
When he wasn’t training at the gym, Marcus found the two of them seemingly trying to avoid each other, which was hard in a one bedroom apartment, one less than five-hundred square feet no less. To avoid the tension, both physically and mentally, he found himself returning to the gym with a fury even he never had before.
In the meantime, Frank called several times, acting as a phone-in best friend, assuring Marcus he couldn’t lose the next match, telling him to polish a spot on his mantelpiece to place his championship belt. During these calls, Marcus could barely force himself to speak all but the most rudimentary elements of a conversation – “hello,” “I’m good,” “thanks,” “how’re you.”
This routine continued with agonizing regularity up until the day of the big match.
A week later, he found himself sitting on the carpeted bottom stop alone. His jittering leg produced a rhythmic tapping that seemed somewhat artificial. The front of his foot dug into the faux-Oriental rug they had placed in the apartment’s entryway.
With a near silent stride, his wife walked down to him. They held eye-contact for a solid minute before she spoke. “I’m not even going to say it.”
“Then don’t.” He turned his head away, refusing for a reason not entirely known to him to make eye contact with her just yet. “I just wish you’d support me.” He then looked up at her and her worn eyes seemed to gain another bag or two to carry.
“Oh, if only you understood how much I support you by asking you not to do this.”
“I thought you weren’t gonna --”
“Yeah, and I thought a lot of things too...” She cut him off. Her eyes seemed watery as she leaned in and gave him a long kiss on his forehead before retreating up the stairs.
Apparently, she was staying home. Marcus didn’t know what he expected – he certainly didn’t consciously expect her to come given their last conversation, but at the same time, for some reason, deep down he did.
He left an hour early for the fight, pacing around the city in the longest route possible to the ring, as if he could outrun time with a leisurely stroll.
One hour later, the stadium was buzzing. Even through the concrete walls, a manmade thunder of excitement could be heard. Marcus eyed the door waiting for Frank to come in. He stood up when he did. “You’re late.”
“But I’m here.” Frank smiled a car salesman’s grin. He smelled like smoke.
Marcus looked away at the wall and rubbed powder into his hands.
“You can feel that excitement, can’t you?”
“I can feel something.” He muttered.
Frank plopped down on the bench with a melodramatic expression of shock. “What’s all this now? Do you need me to tell you it will be ok?”
He paused and looked him in the eye. “No.”
“No, but it’s going to be.” Frank said. “I’m still going to tell you it will be ok. Ok?”
The conflicted emotions stirred within Marcus’ stomach.
When Marcus didn’t respond, Frank added. “I don’t think we have much time left. You ought to head out there.”
Still, Marcus said nothing.
Frank slid a pair of boxing gloves across the wooden bench to Marcus and patted him on the shoulder. He surveyed the area and muttered. “It’ll be ok.”
The crowd was the largest he’d seen. The arena was the largest he’d been at in the last five years at least. As he walked out of the locker room and into the ring, he saw flurry of activity around him – a cotton candy vender walking up and down aisles, a group of men screaming primitively at him as he walked out, a younger boy looking confused as to what all the excitement was about. It was all very disorienting.
He walked in slow motion until he reached his stool.
The next moments in time seemed smushed together as if they had been in a car crash.
Soon, an announcer came out to the center of the ring and grabbed a dangling microphone. It seemed to add a powerful reverb to his deep, showbiz voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Midtown Rumble! In this corner of the ring, the undefeated king of heavyweight boxing,” a few spectators shouted, “going eight and zero this year,” the announcer’s voice seemed to punctuate the numbers with an odd staccato style, “Joe ‘The Hurricane’ Stomboli!” He held out the last syllable for what seemed like hours.
The Hurricane’s fans went ravenous.
“Aaaaaaand in this corner.” It was a long ‘and.’ An ‘and’ that was born and raised into the world. An ‘and’ with no less than twenty A’s and probably more illegitimate children than it could handle. “Marcus ‘The Rock’ Price.”
The crowd erupted.
Marcus stared up at the hulking figure across the ring. Even though they were in the same weight category, he seemed to somehow dwarf Marcus by his enormous stature, by the width of his shoulders.
The two men stood up.
The referee walked into the center of the ring and spoke to both of them as they approached. His white-and-black uniform contrasted with their more flamboyant shorts. “Alright gentlemen, I want a fair fight. Understood?”
His opponent nodded approval, but Marcus stared forward.
“Understood?” He pleaded with more urgency.
“Yes, yes,” Marcus said snapping out of it.
The ref paused and picked at his teeth with his tongue while staring at Marcus. Already the cameras were flashing. “Good.” He said. “Then, let’s begin.”
The bell sounded and they were off. Despite his huge form, there was a gracefulness to The Hurricane’s movements. His feet twiddled on the ground.
Marcus, too, wound about with somewhat elegant strides. How should I do this? He thought with a surge of adrenaline.
At first, he chose to bob and weave around the Hurricane’s ill-timed punches, each one seeming like it packed a powerhouse of energy. His heart was racing with his quick movements, and his body already felt overheated.
If he was to win this, he knew he had to go on the offensive.
He dodged to the right as the breezeblock of a fist cut into the air. He almost slipped and landed face-first onto the floor.
I have to move.
Kicking off his heels, he jumped forward with a bolt, swinging a bolo punch that landed straight on the Hurricane’s chin. He repeated and made contact a second time.
He didn’t know if he imagined the crunching sound or not.
It was a good start.
His blithe movements seemed to give him wings, at least in his mind they did. He could out-maneuver the hulking mass in front of him. Plus...
Plus, he had the advantage.
He thought of Frank in the gym late that night. Of him hiding in the shadows speaking of his plan – so shamelessly he didn’t even need the shadows to hide within.
In his boldness, Marcus proceeded with a barrage of punches: a right hook, a jab, a powerful uppercut! The crowd’s sonorous walls enclosed his ears. Hell, he almost laughed. It was a bloodthirst in him now.
This match is mine.
And then the Hurricane’s fist hit him square on the side of the head.
Except...he didn’t even realize he had been hit. No, not at first. It was a force, a concrete punch, he had hitherto never experienced in all of his years of fighting.
He was on the ground. Unsure of that he was on the ground. Unsure of what had happened. Unsure of much of anything.
The blow to his head certainly caused a severe concussion.
Yet, he stumbled to his feet, but only to serve as a walking punching-bag as the Hurricane landed another blow to his right forearm, which seemed to crack his tibia.
How could this happen?
He’d been in more fights before than he could count, and he never experienced this pain before. Was this the power of his opponent? A fighter who was legendary? Could he be so much better than him even when --
He was on the ground again.
Before he could answer, before he could process the question, he was on the ground again. And it was getting darker. He was again on the ground again, he was...
He turned his bloody face to the side of the ring and saw Frank. As he pushed himself up like a pushup, he saw Frank smiling...smiling?
His head hurt so badly.
With everyone’s attention on him, his attention was on Frank, who was pocketing a hefty sum of chump, no it’s champ change. Champ change in his pocket Frank did, who never would have bet on goody, goody Marcus, now would he? Would he? Wood he?
He was on the floor again.
And now the darkness made more sense of sense. And then it was completely dark for a very, very, very long time.
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