Author’s Note: This is a slightly revised version of a story I wrote in 1983. I find it still works well today.
“In the clearing stands a boxerSimon and Garfunkel
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains…”
“Frank, this is your mother.”
“Hi, ma, how ya doin’?”
“We’re fine. Listen, Frank, when are you coming home?”
“I don’ know, ma. Soon. Maybe in a coupla months or something.”
“Are you still fighting?”
“It ain’t fightin’, ma, it’s boxing. It’s a profession. It’s a— “
“It’s a way to get beat up all the time, Franklin, and it’s a way to ruin your body so you can’t ever get a decent respectable job. Now you should just stop that and come home and get a job. Mr. Johnson down at the hardware store says he could use a good strong boy to help him with the stock and such. He’ll pay four dollars an hour, he said. You think about that, Franklin, that’s above minimum wage. That’s an awfully nice offer, if you want my opinion, son.”
“Yes, ma, it is. That’s real nice of Mr. Johnson. You tell him I said that that was real nice and that I appreciate it and all, but I just can’t come home right now is all.”
“Why not? There’s nothing there for you but getting beat up.”
“Ma, try to understand, willya? This boxing stuff, it’s what I do. It’s almost kinda like it’s, I don’ know, like parta me something. I mean, it’s what I do best, ya know?”
“But you always lose, Franklin. I mean, really now, Frank, when did you ever win a single fight?”
‘I’ll win one sometime, ma. I will. Really. But, see, this not winning fights can be good, too, ya know? I mean, it’s real easy fer me to get fights, cuz a lot of guys like fightin’ rookies like me if they think they can beat ‘em. It gives them a good fight on their record, and it gives me some experience. I mean, I learn a little bit every time I fight. Like last week, this guy Shaw beat me, but see I figgered out the way he-”
“Does it pay well?”
“Huh? Uh, well, ya know, in a way it does. I mean it’s not much just yet, or anything, but, when I start winnin’ I’ll start gettin’ the higher paying fights and everything, and it’ll pay off in the end. And Mr. Clancy, here at the gym’s been real nice to me. I got a little room up here above the gym he lets me have for fifty dollars a month, and he helps me get my fights and stuff.”
“What are you eating?”
“Are you eating all right?”
“Oh yeah, ma, fine. I eat breakfast and everything here. And I can work out downstairs and all at the gym. No, ma, really, it’s great here.”
She was quiet for a few seconds and then she said, “Your mother misses you, you know son.”’
I know, ma. I miss you and dad, too…Honest to God, I really do. But this is just somethin’ I gotta do, ya know?”’
“Well, we’ll call you on Saturday again. Will that be all right? If we call on Saturday?”
“Yeah, ma, but I’ll be downstairs workin’ out in the morning and then I gotta work over at the grocery store down the block till five, so, if you could call a little later, that’d be good. If ya called a little later I mean. I’ll be very busy and all but you go ahead and call though. If you want to I mean.”
“Why wouldn’t we want to call?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that. Just, you know, if you have something more important to do or something.”
“We’ll call about six. Will that be all right?”
“Yeah, ma, six’ll be fine. Really, that’ll be just fine.”
“All fight, Franklin. We’ll talk to you Saturday. We love you, son.”
“I love you, too, ma. And dad, too. You tell him that for me willya?”
“You wanna talk to him? He’s right here.”
“No, that’s okay. You just tell him for me, all right?”
“All right. Goodbye, Frank.”
“G’ bye, ma.” He hung up the phone and walked from the lobby into his room. He went to the small refrigerator he had rented for ten dollars a month, and took out an ice pack. He sat on the cot and then slowly lay down and put the ice pack on his swollen eye.
“I got a letter from Frank today,” said Terry sitting down across the booth from Monica.
“What’d he have to say?”
“He never says much,” she said. She lowered her head and sipped some Pepsi through a straw. She pulled her lips away from the large frozen glass and licked them delicately, getting the sticky cola off of them. “I guess he still hasn’t won a fight. He says his losses aren’t always quite so bad, though.”
“He was pretty hung up on you there for a while, wasn’t he?”
“Who? Frank? I don’t really know. He might have been.”
“Well, I never get any letters from him.”
“Well you’re obviously not as beautiful, witty and charming as I am.”
“Actually, it’s just that dumb guys aren’t attracted to me like they are to you.”
“Hey, come on now, he wasn’t all that dumb. He just didn’t do very well in school, that’s all.”
“Yeah, he was dumb.” She took the cherry off the top of her sundae and held it by its stem just above her open mouth. She slowly lowered it to her mouth and as the fruit got inside she closed it and pulled the stem out. “But if you liked him so much, you coulda been nicer to him, I would think.”
“What’d you want me to do, marry the guy or something?”
“No…I never said you did anything wrong. Nobody ever did anything wrong,” she said putting her spoon into her ice cream. She scooped a large chunk of the vanilla onto it, and then sloshed it around in the hot fudge.
Terry watched her playing with the food, and sipped her Pepsi again. Just as it was reaching the bottom of the glass, she took out her straw, wiped it off and set it carefully on the napkin next to her now empty plate. There was no evidence that there had ever been a cheeseburger and fries on the plate. Even the parsley was gone. “You’re weird, Monica.”
“I know,” she said and sucked the ice cream off the spoon.
“We real1y did like each other there for a while, though I think.”
“You never went out or anything did you?”
“With Frank? You’ve got to be kidding. My parents would have had a fit if I went out with a guy who didn’t even graduate high school. Anyway, he could never have afforded to take me out to even a movie. He never did anything but work out at that gym. Most I ever remember doing is one time at his parent’s place we sort of hugged each other. I don’t know why that happened, but it did.”
“Ya think he was trying to make a move on you or something?”
“God, Monica, is that all you ever think about? I think it just sort of accidentally happened. It was bizarre. We hugged each other for like three minutes I think.”
“And you said I’m weird? If you’re not gonna do anything, what’s the point of–”
“Eat your ice cream, Monica.”
She ate a few more bites and then said, “Hey, lissen, I’m turning eighteen next week and –”
“Subtle…Very subtle. I would have bought you a present anyway, Monica.”
“Oh, no that’s not what I meant. Me and Marcie and Sheila are going to Rick’s Place to celebrate. You wanna come?”
“We can’t get in there, Monica, and you know that. They card everybody.”
“Well, then look what I got myself for my birthday,” she said taking a card out of her purse. She handed it to Terry.
“Your very own license. Gosh… how totally wonderful,” she said sarcastically.
“Look at my birthday, dodo!”
“April seventh, I know… My god, Monica you don’t have t—”
“The year, you imbecile, the year.”
“Hey, you just became nineteen…” She handed it back to her. “Neat.”
“Only cost the five dollars. I can get you one, too, if you wanna come.”
“I can’t. Walt and I are going out this weekend.”
“Walt? Peterson? He’s only a sophomore isn’t he?”
“So? He asked me out, and I’m going.”
“Okay… whatever,” she said and put the license away.
“You know what I think you should do?”
“Call Frank and ask him if he wants to go.”
“You’re the one who likes illiterates, Terry, not me. I don’t like ‘em if they’re dumb. You like him, you ask–”
“Okay, Monica. God! I was only kidding. He’s over a hundred miles away. He wouldn’t have come anyway.”
“Are you done with that?” she said, extending a finger toward Terry’s Pepsi, “cuz I gotta go finish my assignment for English. We’re reading this stupid book called ‘The Catcher in—”
Terry picked up the glass and put it to her lips. She finished the remaining Pepsi, licked her lips again and said, “Let’s go.”
“How’s the eye, kid?” Clancy lifted his Budweiser to his mouth and quickly tipped the bottle upward shooting the beer down his throat. He pulled the bottle away and a little foam flowed over the top of it and onto his hand. He held the beer in his other hand and with his wet hand he wiped his mouth and then wiped his hands on his pants. His face was unshaven and the beard growing randomly on it was somewhat scruffy. Clancy wore a sleeveless t-shirt and smelled of sweat.
“Oh, much better, Mr. Clancy, really. Most of the swelling’s gone down now and all, and I can see better out of it all the time. Be good as new in a coupla days, I’m sure,” he said watching the other fighters training.
“Good kid, I’m gladda hear it.” He swigged his beer again and as he took it away a little dribbled down the side of his mouth. “Lissen, kid, you heard about this Johnson character yet?”
Frank looked back at Clancy now. “Who?”
“Ol’ Ben Johnson down at Matsby’s gym. He’s openin’ it up as a fightin’ arena or some kinda damn fool thing. He needs fighters, kid. He doesn’t give much a damn who they are. I guess he just wansa get people in there bettin’ on the fights and all, ya know?”
“So, how’s it work?” He looked past Clancy and at the door of the gym.
“Both fighters get fifty dollars…Win er lose, Frank, ya make fifty.”
“What if I win?” He looked at him again. “I mean if I win I make more don’t I?”
Clancy smiled. “Sure kid. You get another fifty if ya win. But I wouldn’t count…”
He watched one of the older men lifting on the machine in the corner behind Clancy. His face as taut with effort; his jaw was set firmly. His arms shook as he lifted the bar above him. “I’m gonna win this one, Mr. Clancy.” He looked away from the fighter and back to Clancy. “I can give you two full months rent then. After I win this fight and all, I mean.”
The man drained his beer and threw the empty bottle into a box full of other empties. It clanged noisily against them. “Frank, the guy they want you to fight is Rallings.”A quiet belch escaped his wet lips.
“Rallings? He’s on his way to the big time. Whadda they want me to fight him for?”
“They can get good odds is all, boy. If you fight they’re givin’ seven to one odds. Ol’ Johnson’ll clean up.”
He looked at the floor. “When am I fightin’?” he asked quietly.
“Thirty days… May 7th. You be ready by then?”
He didn’t look up. “I’ll be ready.”
Clancy slapped Frank on the back. “At’s a spirit, kid. Don’t let ‘em get you down. That’s what I always say, anyway. Never let ‘em get you down.” He walked toward the door. “Good luck, kid,” he said and opened the heavy door. “See ya.”
Clancy stopped with the open door in his hand. “Yeah, kid?”
“I’m gonna win this fight, Mr. Clancy. You put your money on me cuz I’m gonna win.”
“Sure you are, kid,” he said and stepped out the door. “Sure you are.” The door made a sort of a ringing sound when it closed behind him.
“This is Frank. How are ya?”
“Oh, Hi Frank. How’s it goin’?”
“Good. Real good. So, really I mean, how are you and all?”
“I’m fine. Nothing really exciting to tell you about or anything. I got your letter the other day. That was really nice. Thank you.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Did you like it or anything?”
“Yeah. I just said I liked it, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, well, ya know. Umm, tell Monica Happy Birthday and all for me, willya?”
“Sure, Frank. So how’s the boxing life going?”
“Oh, great, really. I mean, just fantastic.”
“Oh? Did you win a fight?”
“No, nothin’ like that, yet. But…well that’s kinda why I called.”
“Well…a month from today, I mean May 7th and all, I got this fight. And, umm, well I was wondering if maybe you’d like to maybe come and see it and everything. I mean I got this job workin’ at a grocery store now and I got some money saved up, so I could send you bus fare and all if ya wanted to come…”
don’t know, Frank. I’m really kind of busy next month, and I just
“I mean, you know you wouldn’t have to stay long or anything. Maybe just sort of say Hi or something after I win, ya know?”
“After you win? What makes you so sure you’re going to win? Who are you fighting?”
“This guy Rallings…He’s pretty tough and all, but I know I can beat him, cuz I’m gonna train real hard for a whole month and everything, and this guy won’t be expectin’ me to be any good, ya know, and I’ll just kinda take ‘im by surprise like Ol’ Rocky did to that Apollo Creed guy and I’ll win and then I’ll be on my way. I mean, when you beat a contender and all, well, then you’re on your way. And, I just kinda wanted you to be there and see it and all, cuz I always…I always kind of…” Frank blushed a moment. “Ya wanna come? I mean I could send you bus fare and all right away.”
“You don’t have to send bus fare, Frank. I’ll drive if I can go. I mean, I won’t promise anything, now, but if I can find the time, I’ll go. Where is it?”
“I got you this whole map drawn out how to get there from the bus station. It’s a real good map. I worked pretty hard on it las’ night and all. I’ll send it to ya tomorrow, all right?”
“Okay. I’ll try to go if I can.”
“Okay, lissen I’m out of quarters and all and the operator is probably gonna cut us off in a minute, so–”
“I thought you had your own phone.”
“No, just this pay booth here in the lobby. But I’m the only one who ever answers it so it’s like my own phone, but not quite. Ya know? Anyway, I gotta go. I hope you come, Terry. I really wish ya would.”
“I’ll try Frank.”
“Okay…Tell Ol’ Monica Happy Birthday and all for me okay?”
“Okay. Bye Terry.”
“That your girlfriend, Frank?”
Frank turned suddenly around, the receiver still in his hand. Tom Rallings stood before him, a good inch and a half taller and probably ten pounds heavier. “No,” he said, quietly. He hung up the receiver. “She’s just a friend.”
“You told her to come to our fight, didn’t you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to pick up some of my stuff from my locker.”
“You been outta this gym for over a month, Tom.”
“There was some stuff I left behind.” He held up a duffle bag. “You tell her to come to the fight?”
“Yeah,” he said and looked carefully at his own tennis shoes.
“Why don’t you call her back and tell her not to, Frank?”
looked up. “Why? I got as good a chance as you of winnin’.”
“No you don’t Frank. I’m older, more experienced and stronger. I’ve been at this a while and I’m a good fighter.”
“I’m gonna train like you’ve never seen anybody train, though, Tom. You won’t believe it.”
“That’s good, kid. I’m glad to hear that, I really am. Listen, how ‘bout I buy you a beer somewhere to celebrate the beginning of your training? Whaddaya say?”
“Wish I could. I really do. I mean, I’d like to have a beer with you and all, Tom, I really would, but I gotta get to bed so I can get up real early and train a little before work you know.”
“You’re working? How’re you gonna train when you’re working?”
“Just you wait and see.”
“All right, kid.”
“Lissen, I gotta go to bed now, so I’ll see ya around, Okay?”
Frank turned and started walking down the hall.
“Frank—” He stopped, and turned around. “You know I like you and I’d really like to let you win, but I can’t. You understand that don’t you?” Frank said nothing. “I’m a professional, Frank. The job and my personal life are two separate things. I can’t show you any kind of favoritism. I’m gonna beat you… That’s just the way it is.”
Frank stared silently at him.
not personal, kid. It’s strictly business.”
Frank stood there a second and then said, “Good night, Tom.”
Frank walked inside his room and Tom watched the door close and saw the light in the window go out before he walked away.
lay with his back on the mat, looking up at the blinding flood lights
above him. He heard the official counting, “Seven…”
He squinted to keep the light out of his eyes, but the pressure of doing so opened the cut above his eye again and it began to drip very slowly downward. The light distorted into a shape when he squinted that way, of a familiar, almost recognizable image. A young female face cloaked in the whiteness of the light seemed to take form in front of his eyes, and for a second he drifted into fantasy. The girl walked from the kitchen into the living room. There appeared to be something in her eye but it was only there for a moment before she blinked and it disappeared. He got up from the couch and walked toward the kitchen to get a glass of milk. Neither of them said anything. They nearly collided and neither of them knew if it was intentional or not. They found themselves with their arms around each other in an awkward but still infinitely pleasing and satisfying hug. They were silent, save for a sort of a purring that came from the girl when she first put her arms around him. It was from somewhere low in the throat, or maybe in the chest that the sound came.
“Eight,” and he looked away from the light and into Rallings’s expressionless face.
“Nine,” and he heard a familiar voice from the first row. “Get up, Frank. You can do it!” He put his hands on the mat and sat up. He grabbed one of the ropes with his right hand, and then another with his left and pulled himself up, leaning on them. His left eye was swollen shut and his mouth bled slightly. He let go of the ropes and wiped his mouth with the glove on his right hand. He walked unsteadily forward into the ring, and motioned his opponent with his gloves. He breathed heavily. “Lessgo,” he grunted. Rallings shook his head and walked toward him, almost in disbelief. Frank swung wildly at him and missed, stumbling and landing on the other man. They stood for a moment in a clinch and they were silent save for a sound from low in Rallings’s throat or possibly his chest. He pushed Frank away and hit him again. Frank fell hard to the mat and smacked it with a thud. He got to his knees and grabbed the rope with both hands, facing out of the ring his eyes closed. He slowly opened his right eye and saw Terry, though her face was distorted and red from the blood now
running liberally from the cut. She looked at him for a moment and then to the ground, her face showing disappointment and something resembling betrayal. She reached down below her seat and carefully picked up her purse. She took her jacket from the back of the chair as she stood up, and without looking in his direction again, made her way across the aisle. At the end of the aisle, she turned and walked up the ramp, opened the door and was gone.
The official had been counting all the while. “Eight…Nine.” Frank leapt up and yelled something that couldn’t be heard over the crowd. He lunged at Rallings, who stepped neatly out of the way and let Frank fall face down on the mat. The bell began to ring furiously and the bigger man walked quietly back to the corner and sat down. A moment or so later, while Frank still laid on the mat, the official was holding Rallings’s hand in the air and declaring him the winner by knock out.