from Kid Cooleby M. G. Stephens
He sat on the porch of the nursing home next to his auntie. Aunt Ella had gotten old, not before her time, but right on time, though she had become much older than the last visit to the home. Uncle Tony, her brother, the fighter, the prisoner-of-war, he was old prematurely, only he still looked like a dopy teenager. Kid was young and alive. But, he could be one fight, even one punch away from old age. He could be rocking next to Aunt Ella and not even know it was his aunt next to him.
—I’m being taken care of, she said.
—You’re all right in my book, the Kid told his aunt, patting her hand.
—What book is that?
—How the fuck would I know? Kid said, shrugging his shoulders.
—How the fuck would you know? she repeated, only putting slightly different emphasis on each word.
The couch on the porch at Ralph Half-Dog’s house sagged. It sat on the outdoor porch of his house, soggy and sagging. His porch also sagged. And so did the street. It sagged, too. Muhammad Ali Way sagged. It dipped. It sagged like the couch on the porch. His building on Muhammad Ali Way sagged, too, just like the street, which dipped in front of Ralph Half-Dog’s double-decker, two-family house.
Mike White, Ralph’s father-in-law, lived with his wife Sapphire on the second floor.
Ralph Half-Dog owned a small bar at the end of the street and around the block. It was called the Neutral Corner. He said he named it after a famous saloon in the City that stood across the street from Stillman’s gym where all the great fighters trained.
—That was Whitey Bimstein’s territory, Ralph Half-Dog said.
It was almost like he was talking about Saint Francis of Assisi.
Other cornermen received Ralph’s adoration too. They included Jack Blackburn—Joe Louis’s trainer. He also liked Eddie Futch. Angelo Dundee. Lou Duva. Manny Steward. Cus D’Amato. Gil Clancy. Kevin Rooney. Teddy Atlas. If Ralph said Whitey Bimstein with the love and devotion one might accord St. Francis, these other names were like some of the twelve apostles of boxing.
When Kid went with Aunt Ella as a young boy to visit her brother in Yonkers, they sat on a porch like this one, and in rocking chairs, only instead of the rolling hillside going down to the river, they looked out on the thruway cutting through Yonkers. Ella’s nursing home wasn’t exactly idyllic either. On the other side of the house, there was a cement plant that belched out smoke, and Kid smelled an acrid soot in the air. The cement plants, up and down the river, burned old tires and waste, fouling the air, but—they’re exempt from environmental laws—his aunt said, the environmentalist, the rabble-rouser. That’s what Aunt Ella told him the last time he visited her. The cement plants were exempt from environmental laws.
Ralph Half-Dog weighed in excess of four-hundred-and-seventy-five pounds. They once weighed him on a truck scale alongside the New York State Thruway. He wore his jet-black hair in a ponytail because he was Mohawk. Dressed up, dressed down, Ralph wore bib overalls. Sometimes he wore a tee-shirt or sweat shirt. Other times, his big chest was bare.
He had been a great middleweight in the amateurs.
When he turned pro, he had twenty or so fights. Then he experienced a detached retina. He caught it at the end of a big right. His opponent doubled up off a jab. One right followed by another.
The second right detached his retina. It fell away from its network of arteries.
Ralph was blind in one eye.
The weight came on a few years later. A thyroid problem. He took medication. Ate well. Even walked every day. Nothing helped.
His wife Penny Half-Dog was Mike and Sapphire White’s oldest daughter. She was a product of Sticks. She was big, too.
So were Mike and Sapphire. All of them had diabetes now.
Ralph bought the two-family on Muhammad Ali Way and put Penny’s family upstairs after their house burnt to the ground a few blocks over on Catskill Street.
Mike and Sapphire didn’t pay rent. Ralph let them do all the cooking for the building. Mike White cooked without sugar and salt, a restricted diet to help all of them with their diabetes.
—I’m not happy, she said. I’m old and I got pains in places I didn’t even know I had.
Then she decided to change the subject.
—How’s your family?—
—Fine, she said. Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.
They laughed. His aunt must have said this every time he visited her. Fucked up. Insecure. Neurotic. Emotional. Yeah, he was fine all right. He was super-fine.
As a couple of Billy Faherty’s fighters sat on the sagging couch on the porch, Mike and Sapphire worked two barbecue pits in the side yard next to the two-family. The side lot belonged to Ralph and he used it as his backyard. Another two-family had been there before it burnt to the ground. Ralph bought the land from the former neighbors, who moved away after finding a house in Troy, further upstate. The barbecue pits were set up near the peeling white picket fence near the street. The pits were made from oil drums that were sliced vertically in half. Mike welded legs on them and put industrial chicken wire over the pit. He added smokestack vents on each pit.
Sapphire cooked Southern. Her station produced ribs, fried and barbecued chicken, along with collard greens, blackeyed peas, hot-pepper cornbread, wild rice, and sweet potato pie. For one day, they would not worry about their restricted diets.
Mike attended to a goat stew on a back part of his grill. On the front part he made steaks and grilled vegetables. He heaped the steak with onions and peppers and steak sauce.
He handed Kid a big sirloin cut and said:
—Remember how I told you to eat it.—
—I chew it, then spit out the meat.—
—Yeah, Mike said, like the Mongoose.—
Mike White said Archie Moore was the greatest light-heavyweight who ever lived. Kid’s favorite Mongoose fight was when he fought Yvonne Durrell. His second favorite was when he fought Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship. Even though Archie Moore lost that fight, he nearly took out Marciano with one of his punches before the Brockton Bomber came out and took care of business. Kid and the other young fighters watched the matches obsessively on DVDs and old tapes.
—Rocky was the greatest inside fighter ever, Mike said.
They sat on the porch and they rocked in their rockers, him and his auntie. Kid pictured members of his extended family. If he went down to the city to be a sparring partner, he called one of them. But other than sparring, he hadn’t fought in the city yet. That’s what Billy Faherty was trying to do, what he called, affect a fight in New York City.
—I want to affect a fuckn fight, Billy said, in fuckn New York City. I want to fuckn affect it. Fuckn A.
Kid thought that Billy Faherty had a way with words, an affinity for them, Billy called it, as he hadn’t had the words punched out of him.
—Let me touch you.—
—I have to fight.—
—So, no sex before a fight.—
—Takes it away.—
—You lose your focus?—
—How’bout a hug?—
—You’re like so skinny and yet you’re like a rock.—
—You got no fat.—
—No, you got nothn.—
—Behind my neck.—
—There’s a roll of fat there.—
—You got a big neck for such a skinny guy, Kid.—
—You ever gonna stop fightn?—
—One, two fights.—
—When I become Champ.—
—Or what else?—
—Billy says a person only has so many fights in them. Once you reach your limit, you might as well leave. Otherwise, you are gonna get your ass handed to you on a platter.—
—That’s the most I ever heard you say.—
—That’s the most I’m ever gonna say.—
—Well, I’m glad I heard you.—
—I’m glad you did. Hey, what are you doin?—
—Just gettin’ friendly. You saved my life.—
—This ain’t sex, silly. This is foreplay. This is warm-up. This don’t count.—
—It feels like it counts.—
—Don’t it feel good?—
—Don’t you like it?—
—I don’t want to go to jail.—
—You ain’t gonna go to jail just because someone sucks on you, man.—
—Talk, talk, talk, Mr. Kim said, eating his lunch. Always talking and talking.
—You shut up, you crazy old Kim!—
—Too much words in her head, Mr. Kim said, pointing to his wife’s curly black hair.
A black beauty parlor on Harding Avenue in Sticks had given Mrs. Kim an Afro.
Sunny Kim usually wore a pair of carpenter jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with American flag suspenders and Red Wing boots. It was impossible to imagine her in her stripping days, with a G-string and a feather boa and pasties.
Mr. Kim had the weary look of an old cowboy. He reminded Parnell Coole of Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, one of those silent, angular people who spoke only a few words in their entire lifetime. The Kid liked Mr. Kim because, unlike his own brothers and sisters, Parnell did not have much use for words either.
He drank the green tea with barley and enjoyed the earthy after-taste it left in his mouth. His boss drank a glass of beer instead of the green barley tea.
Sometimes Mr. Kim backed it up with a shot of Irish whiskey. He drank any kind of cheap Irish whiskey they sold in the liquor store.
—Big headache in Brooklyn factory, Mrs. Kim said, sighing. It was that Boxing-Man-with-Bushy-Hair.
—Don King? Kid asked.
Kid had been trying to meet Don King for years. But Don King wouldn’t give Kid the time of day. Mr. King did not like lightweight fighters, Kid was told. Worse than being white or whatever it was Kid was, he was a lightweight. Lightweights didn’t draw big money unless you were Manos de Piedras, Sweet-Pea, or pretty-faced Oscar, the really great names from the division. Mayweather or Rosario.
I’m white, the Kid thought, and I’m light.
He once told Mrs. Kim his theory, but she thought it foolish. The notion that being white was a liability for anything in life made no sense to her. Also, she wasn’t quite so sure that Kid Coole was white. He wasn’t exactly black. He certainly wasn’t Korean. But he didn’t seem white either.
—You get hit the head too much—
Was how she put it.
Sunny ate her kim-chee and rice and went on with her story about the factory in Brooklyn.
—Man-with-Bushy-Hair come to Sunset Park factory and tell us to get out of Brooklyln with our Chinese Panama hats. He say he have the market on corner—
—The corner on market, Mr. Kim corrected her.
—Yes, Mrs. Kim agreed.
—Corner on market.—
Then she continued.
—However, she said.
—Don King? the Kid asked again.
—Man-with-Bushy-Hair, she repeated, but never actually said it was Don King.
—You talk talk talk, Mr. Kim said. All the time talk talk talk.
He took his hand and made his fingers into a mouth and animated them into a cartoonish way of talking as if his hand were a puppet.
The man with the bushy hair, whoever he was, came into the old factory in Brooklyn with some of his associates, telling the Kims that he had exclusive rights to all Chinese Panama hats in America.
Mr. Kim had called his own people in for advice. Intimidation was not something to bother him. He seemed to like it. Gangsters might have brass knuckles, knives and guns. Mr. Kim knew people with handgrenades, tanks, and fighter jets. But his own associates told him to let go of the hat business.
That’s when the Kims moved to Sticks and opened the plastics factory. The hat business was easy. Making plastics was work. You had to produce a product. You had to be at work six days a week.
—Is your sister Sam still married to the garment district fellow?—
Kid came back to the nursing home, back from that place where he had been, back in the gym, sparring, back in the ring, running up his record, only still trying to rectify, Billy said, that one loss to Blue Rivers. He looked at his aunt, smiled, searched for the word.
—Divorced, he said.
—And she never remarried?—
—Married another garment district guy, and they been together twenty years.—
—That’s the one I’m talking about.—
—The second one?—
—Yeah, the second fuckn one.—
—They’re doing all right in Florida, he said.
—His family were shylocks for the mob, right?—
Kid shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn’t know. He learned a long time ago it was better not to know such things. And if you did know, it was better not to say anything. People talked too much anyhow. He liked to be silent about such matters. Who knew or cared if his sister’s husband’s family were shylocks for the mob? Who knew what his brother Emmett really did? Who knew what happened to his twin brother Rory? Or their father: what did their father do down the piers? These were not things that a young fighter needed to know about. He would live to be an old man not knowing any of that shit. He would live well without these worthless details in his head.
Four small boxers, including Kid Coole, sat on the sagging couch on the porch. They ate mashed potatoes, beans, cornbread, and steak.
Each had a plastic cup he or she spat the steak grizzle into.
One of the fighters was a young woman from Leathe named Carmen O’Reilly, an up-and-coming boxer. The other two fighters were Carlos Brown and Sonny Boy Johnson. Both were from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Sonny Boy had once been a champion.
Ralph was on the other side of the lawn, towards the back of the house and the alley. There was a garage back there. One of his friends had set up a keg of beer. It was put there because Billy Faherty and Mike White were recovering alcoholics and didn’t drink anymore. Both attended AA meetings at a church in the middle of Sticks, sometimes going every day. To show his respect, Ralph Half-Dog made everyone who wanted to drink do it in the alley, not on the lawn where everyone was eating.
In the middle of the lawn Billy Faherty and his wife Mary Sullivan talked with Ralph’s friends. Nearly everyone at the party was involved in the fight business.
—Remember my brother? she asked.
—He was a fighter.—
—You are too, she said, tapping his shoulder with a playful punch.
It’s getting time to go, he thought.
—You’re a good boy, she said.
Ralph came up on the porch. The stairs creaked under his enormous weight. He motioned for all the small fighters to get up.
—I’m feeling uncomfortable, he said.
He lay on the sagging couch.
—What’re ya doin’, Ralphie? Penny asked, coming up the steps behind her husband.
Penny wore quilted oven mittens and carried a spatula.
The porch almost gave way under their combined weight. But Kid knew from the various kinds of jobs he took that wood can take a lot more stress than brick or stone or steel.
—I’m uncomfortable, Ralph repeated himself.
Penny was a nurse, and Ralph had a funny pale-green color. He said his left arm tinkled and ached. He had no feeling in his fingers. His head was dizzy.
—I’m nausatatious, he said, and then he sat up and threw up all over the porch.
He had a seizure. He went into convulsions on the floorboards of the porch.
—Call the ambulance, Penny shouted.
Kid ran inside and called the fire department and told them that Ralph Half-Dog was having a heart attack or a stroke.
When he got back outside everyone stood around the sagging couch as Penny administered CPR to Ralph.
Half the people in the yard were certified in CPR. You couldn’t work a corner in New York State without knowing it. So it was a good place to be ill. A good place to have a heart attack or stroke.
The ambulance raced down Muhammad Ali Way a few minutes later. But it took six of the biggest people at the party to lift Ralph Half-Dog into the ambulance.
—Don’t worry, Mike White said. Let’s keep eating. Ralph had some agata. Also, Ralph would want his friends to enjoy themselves, no matter what happened.
Penny left with the ambulance, and a few others raced off in their cars to the hospital on the other side of Sticks.
The small, young fighters chewed their steaks, sitting on the sagging couch, and they spat the meat into their plastic cups. They swallowed the juice, just like Archie Moore, the Mongoose. The party went on. But they all had worried looks on their faces. They seemed moody and sullen, anxious and uncertain about Ralph Half-Dog, whom everyone knew and loved. Ralph worked all their corners.
—Ralph gotta lose some weight, Carmen O’Reilly said between chewing and spitting.
Carmen was very pretty for a fighter. But that would not last long. She’d get some lumpy eyebrows and a bent ear, just like the little guys she sat with.
—We all gotta watch our weight, Sonny Boy Johnson said.
Sonny Boy was thinking of becoming a middleweight because it was harder and harder to make his welterweight limit.
Carlos Brown was a flyweight and never worried about anything.
Kid Coole stayed the weight he was no matter what happened or what he did. Of course, he didn’t drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or take drugs. He didn’t eat junkfood either. No potato chips or pretzels, no bagels or crullers or jelly donuts. Kid also did what Mike White told him to do. He chewed the sirloin and spat out the meat. He swallowed the juice.
They watched the river below. The Indians called it a river that flowed two ways. That’s because it was not a river but an estuary, Billy Farts said. Estuaries were sensitive to the ways of the moon, like the oceans were, Billy added. (Mike White told Kid that one evening as they stood on the edge of the Hudson River in Sticks, looking out at the backward flowing current.) If you watched long enough, the river moved north. Then it moved south. Kid knew how to flow forward and back, and sideways. He knew how to back up when it was to his own advantage. Billy Farts taught him that, too. He was no river like that fellow Blue Rivers, his one loss. There was a perpetual motion about Kid, even if by the smallest degrees. This was just such an example. He needed to be going, not staying still; he needed to get up—and go. He needed to affect a change back to Sticks. He needed to fight Blue Rivers again and rectify that one loss.
—You’re a good boy, Aunt Ella said, squeezing his hands.
He pulled away from her.
He did not like people squeezing his hands.
When Mr. Kim talked to a customer, he became excited. The light caught the reflection of one of the many rings he wore on his fingers. He removed a four-by-six-inch plastic transparency, the laminate, he called it.
—It’s bulletproof, Mr. Kim said, handing the transparency to the customer.
Years ago Mr. Kim was the first Korean to go to China since Mao had taken over after World War II.
—After the Berlin Wall fell, Mrs. Kim said.
But Parnell Coole had no interest in facts. They gave him a headache. History was history. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing but right now. He was here. That’s all he knew. He was alive and he was breathing. An energy ran through his veins. He had his health. He still could fight in a ring. He had no interest in China or Berlin, their walls or their people, unless he was to fight one of them in the ring. His trainer had told him that the legs were the first thing to go on a fighter, and the Kid still had his legs. He did his roadwork every morning before the sun came up. He ran four or five miles, depending on the route, through the streets of Sticks, long before he went to work. Kid lived for the moment when he entered the ring and pounded on another human being’s body, knocking an opponent into submission. Everything else was a distraction.
A ten-wheeler from Queens was due that afternoon, but not for another hour. Kid was in charge of getting the truck loaded with palettes filled with the transparencies. He stood outside the factory on the loading dock, looking out toward the river and the big mountains beyond, dreaming of fights he had and those to come. When those thoughts left his head, there was nothing there to replace them. He stood there blankly looking off toward the mountains and the river, seeing nothing, as if it were one big transparency. He imperceptibly shuffled his feet back and forth, rolling his head side to side, as if to loosen the muscles before a fight.
He waited for the bell to ring.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
The former heavyweight champion held a news conference at which he announced plans to resume his long-interrupted career that had been sidelined by fear of losing and then lack of will, finally though by a stint in a Midwestern jail for raping a beauty pageant queen in Indiana, while refusing now to speak about his conversion to the faith of Allah, a Muslim believer, nor anything personal, as he put it, only boxing, nothing but that which had to do with and applied to Queensbury rules in effect since the last century.
The Rail is running Kid Coole as a serial from May 2015 through August 2016.
ContributorM. G. Stephens
M. G. STEPHENS is the author of nineteen books, most recently Occam’s Razor (2015), a collection of short poems. His other works include the novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole; the essay collections Green Dreams and The Dramaturgy of Style; and the memoirs Lost in Seoul and Where the Sky Ends. He recently completed a nonfiction work about downtown New York in the 1960s, with particular attention on the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Recent writings have appeared in the current issues of Missouri Review, Notre Dame Review, The London Magazine, and The Hollins Critic.