—We don’t have mountains, Mike White said to the reporter. What we got is mountainview.
The reporter scribbled frantically, not hearing the differences that Mike White wished to articulate, just getting them onto his notepad. The writer would figure out what his interviewee meant later. Mr. White was a renowned boxing cornerman, and whatever he said was noteworthy to the journalist.
—It’s chilly at this time of morning, Mike White said. Even in the late spring. Mountains are like that, though there’s surprising less snow in Sticks than in Leathe across the river. Over in Leathe, you still see the mountain-cap snow. But here in Sticks, we don’t have mountains to call our own. We’re all valley. We’re rivertown. We’re mountainview folk. That’s what we are. Sticks ain’t like no other part of this here part the state of New York.
The reporter worked for the Boxing Gazette, a monthly magazine out of Philadelphia. He wrote quickly, having failed to bring batteries for his tape recorder, and so could not use the machine. Then he looked up from his pad and asked one of those dumb questions that dumb reporters ask.
—What are the people like in Sticks?—
—The people? Mike asked.
—What are they like?—
Mike White reflected on this dumb question as if it were a really good one.—Half us poor niggardly bastards. (He laughed deep down in his belly, Mike being a good-natured fellow.) Other half Sticks poor white. I know, I know, you thought there were no poor white people in the North. Well, come to Sticks. We even have Injuns—the kind from India and the kind from the Mohawk nation, all of them working in the button factory the late shift, midnight to eight o’clock in the morning. (He laughed again.) They make fuckn good buttons, them people. Black folk here’re the old-timers in Sticks. Ancestors arrived during Civil War, the town being a pernt on the Underground Railroad. You heard of melting pot? We are one big Irish stew. A little lamb. A little carrots. Little potatoes and the like. Sticks be a big Irish stew. Only come to think of it, there ain’t no Irish in the stew.
—What about Kid Coole?—
—Yeah, I think, said the reporter.
—Nah, he fight like Joe Louis, pint-sized. He the lightweight Joe Louis. Now how a man gonna be Irish and fight like Joe Louis, huh? Nah, you are (with all due respect) wrong, my friend. Kid be a mutt like everyone else here, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, maybe he got himself some Irish in the mix. Mike Tyson himself even a little bit Irish. Father a Fitzpatrick, from what I understand.—
Mike White ruminated on the topic.
—Kid fight like Joe Louis.—
—Is Kid Coole typical of the people from Sticks?—
This reporter from Philadelphia was beginning to waste Mike White’s time.
—Ain’t nothing typical about that boy, Mike White said. That boy almost skinny looking. But lookn is the operational word. He look skinny, but ain’t no person (he said the word almost like the word poison) stronger than that little Kid Coole. He pint-sized. He a lightweight. But he fight like Joe Louis. Last time I checked the Ring Record Book, Joe Louis weren’t no Irish fighter. He was the Brown Bomber. Nobody call him the Green Man. He was from Dee-Troit. He weren’t no Irish. And Kid Coole, he the pint-sized Brown Bomber.
—One more question, sir?—
But Mike White had picked up his spit bucket and walked across the gym away from the dumb reporter from Philadelphia who worked for the Boxing Gazettte, a magazine that recently said that Lutrec Spears was the natural heir to the lightweight crown in boxing. Hell, Kid Coole was the only heir apparent on the horizon, Mike White thought, as he trudged to the office that he and Billy Faherty used.
Kid walked purposefully across the Headless Horseman bridge from Sticks to Leathe. He had walked five or six miles in all. When he got to the Billy Faherty’s gym, he was annoyed and aggrieved at his trainer for asking him to come today. His mountain-bike had a flat tire, and he needed a new inner-tube for it. The inner-tube would not come until the end of the week. So he had to walk, not having a driver’s license for a car.
He stepped into the trainer’s office. Billy did not invite his fighter to sit in one of the wooden office chairs. Instead Kid stood in front of Billy’s desk, waiting for the pep talk. Billy Farts sat talking with his partner Mike White, the cutman. Mike was the other half of Kid’s corner.
—You’re good enough to get yourself killed, Billy Faherty said.
The fighters from Sticks were known for being tough enough, not good enough. Being tough enough was Billy Farts’ motto. It hung over the doorway to his gym in Leathe. Tough Enough, it said. He also hung the sign over his other gym in Sticks. Same motto, different town: Tough Enough. If you were good enough to fight, it also meant that you might be good enough to die. Being tough enough was another matter. If you were tough enough, then no one was tougher than you were because there was enough toughness to keep you alive and well.
Most of the Sticks fighters worked rings in the Catskill range or up around Albany and Troy and Schenectady and along the Thruway to Syracuse and even Buffalo. Sometimes they fought in Oneonta or Cortland or Ithaca or Binghamton, too. They were all tough enough. Once they became good enough, they were just sparring partners and journeymen going nowhere.
—You’re gettin’ good enough to get yourself killed. You’re good enough to be an opponent but not a champeen.—
The Kid sat down in a wooden chair.
—Stand up, Billy said.
The Kid stood.
—Show me your stance.—
Kid bent his knees slightly, lowering his center of gravity. He raised his hands, the left slightly extended, ready to jab. The right was cocked by his ear. He tucked his chin.
—The legs, Billy said. I don’t like the way the legs are. Give me more angle.
The Kid’s left toe pointed toward the old trainer. The right shot off at a right angle from the other leg.
—Closer, Billy said, squaring the breadth of his legs with the length of his shoulders.
Nothing more nor nothing less.
—Why aren’t you fightin’ like that? Billy Farts asked.
The Kid did not answer his trainer.
—You’re losing power by turning your right foot toward the other guy.—
Billy called opponents “the other guy.”
The Kid relaxed.
—Is that it? the lightweight asked.
Kid was miffed.
—Look at me, Billy Farts said. What do you see?
Kid looked at Billy.
—What do you see?—
He saw an old guy with a beat-up face. He was stocky, pot-bellied, red-faced. Billy had meaty hands. He was bald with a fringe of curly white hair.
—You, Kid said. Billy Farty. My trainer.
Kid looked the old trainer right in the eye, giving him stinkeye.
—And Mike White? Billy Faherty asked.
—What do I see?—
—Yeah, Billy said. Tell us what you see.
—Mike White, Parnell Coole said. What’ssa matta? Assistant trainer. Cutman. Cornerman. Your partner. What?
—Older guy with white hair. He’s stocky. He has big hands. A beat-up face.—
—Yeah, Kid said.
—I’m concerned that you are not seeing what’s right in front of you, Kid. For instance, I’m a bleached-out white guy and Mike White is black. He’s got pock-marks in his face, and I don’t. His nose is big and twisted, and mine is, well, it’s prettier than his.
—Says you, Mike White said.
—Says me, Billy agreed.
—You’re white and he’s black, Kid said. Big deal.
—Good, Billy said. At least you got the superficial shit down.
—Kid ain’t Prejudice, Mike White said.
—Of course he ain’t Prejudice, Billy Faherty told his partner. He’s like us. He’s a mutt. Mutts ain’t got time for Prejudice.
Then Billy got to the point.
—You see us and you understand what we look like. I’m Billy. He’s Mike. We’re fat, old, bald-headed, knocked-around people. We’re your cornermen. You do know what we look like?—
—Yeah, the Kid said.
Then Billy Faherty screamed.
—SO WHAT THE FUCK’S THE PROBLEM FINDN YOUR GODDAMN CORNER? YOU KNOW WHAT WE LOOK LIKE. HOW COME YOU CAN’T FIND US, KID?
—Blood in one eye, Kid said. Blur in the other.
—You know what strikes me as weird, Kerry? All of it. You go out to meet your friends, and you wind up with a guy two or three times your age. No, no, shuddup, I’m talkn to youse. You meet this guy wiff a shamrock on his neck and you go to the alley to smoke, and he tries to rape you. He is rapin’ you, only he never comes. No, no, I’m talkin’. You all said enuff. You all’ll have your chance again later. He don’t come ‘cause this little baldheaded dark guy in a nylon workout suit and trainers comes along and wallops the motherfucker on the button, and the big guy wiff the shamrock tattooed on his neck falls to the ground like a sack of shit, which he is, by the way, and may he rot in hell, and he collapses from this little baldie guy’s punch. Sounds implausible, you know, impossible, fantastic, made up, humbug—BULLSHIT!—
—But, but, mommy…—
—You know what they say: everything after “but” is bullshit.—
—That’s what’s happen.—
—And the little bald dark guy’s name?—
—That’s what he said.—
—He said his name was Kid. Where’s he live?—
—By the courthouse.—
Kerry told her mother where.
—And he didn’t touch youse?—
—He saved my life, mommy.—
—He didn’t touch youse?—
—He didn’t do nuffink.—
—Nuffink? Are you lyin’?—
—You callin’ me a liar, mommy? I ain’t no fuckn liar, mommy.—
—I ain’t callin’ you shit, girl. I’m axin’ youse, are youse lyin’?—
—I’m not the liar in this family.—
—What’s that supposed to mean?—
—You promised to buy me new jeans.—
—We’ll go today.—
—Route 9 don’t have no good jeans, mommy.—
—We’ll go to Albany. We’ll drive up there in the car.—
—I got to shower.—
—So go shower, and we’ll drive to Albany when youse good and ready, sweetheart, love of my life, sweet Kerry.—
—You drinkin’, mommy.—
—I’m bone-dry sober.—
—Then you go crazy?—
—You are all I got, honey.—
—Sometimes you don’t ac’ like you loves me.—
—I loves you, Porgie.—
—Don’t sing that rat-shit song to me, mommy. I hates that awful shit-ass of a song.—
—Take yo’ shower, girl.—
—I’m going, I’m going, don’t rush me, I’m gone.—
He raked the leaves into a big pile in the middle of the lawn. Then he got the large black plastic bags, and stuffed them full of the leaves. Next he found the electric trimmer and looked after the hedges, cutting and shaping, and afterward picking up the leaves and twigs and stuffing them into other black plastic yard bags. He drank some water, the sweat oozing off him like a faucet. He liked the feeling of heat and humidity, sweat and summer ahead, only this was spring, the early part of it, one of those freakishly warm days in April. He might not see this lawn again until May when all the snow melted. Or he might wait until June or July to cut it again, the cold deep in the ground, not thawing out even after the air was warm and springlike. He took the black-bin bags and put them behind the two-car garage, and then left through the yard into another one, where he did the same thing. He would pick up his money at the end of the week or the end of the month, depending on his customer. Then he paid his rent and bought some groceries. If there was any money left over, he might buy new footwear for the gym, nothing fancy, no white shoes, no red ones either. Just a nice pair of black boxing shoes, the kind that let you feel the canvas under your foot, let you use the shoe and the canvas to get your traction, to set and punch, or to hit and move away.
Fighters and alligators have trouble moving sideways, but not boxers, not Kid.
—Take off that make-up.—
—You should talk.—
—I am talkn. Take dat shit off.—
—Nuffink wrong a little make-up.—
—A little, a little. But youse takn the whole fuckn lip gloss. You puttn the shit on with a trowel.—
—It’s my lip gloss.—
—Not the point, honey. And cover up your tummy, and stop showing so much titty. I’m cold lookn at your bare midriff.—
—Your mouf too fresh.—
—Your butt’s too big, mommy.—
—My figure’s like a young thing.—
—Youse carry yourself like a young thang.—
—Like what, Kerry?—
—Youse my momma and you get up and go gallivant like you was a high-school girl.—
—Take off my fuckn make-up.—
—I got the hand. I got the strength. I got a mind to. I might just. I send your ass to kingdom come and back.—
—They’ll kick your ass out of this here mall, mommy.—
—I got a mind to.—
—I’ll report yo ass to social services.—
—You shut up.—
—I’ll tell them about the abuse and the neglect. The men and womens traipsin’ in our house all hours of night. I’ll get ‘em to t’row yo ass in the slamma, momma.—
They were in the make-up section of the department store. Gladiola wanted to light up a cigarette, but couldn’t. She wanted a cuppa Joe. A shot of booze. Kerry looked in the mirror on the cosmetic’s counter. Here was what she saw: Britney Spears. Here was what her momma saw: young slut out to get in trouble in Sticks. The security guard in the department store at the mall watched the two of them like a hawk. He didn’t like their look. They had to be up to something. Probably they already stole it, whatever it was they wanted to steal. They stole it and it was already in their pocket. On their possession. He could get both of them down in the basement. Cross-examine them. Make them take off their clothes. Yeah. He could make them take off their clothes. But the next time he looked, they were gone, they were outta there like a bat outta hell. They were gone.
—When you get your belly pierced?—
—Yeah, why you do that after what I told you?—
—You got a hunnred tattoos.—
—Eight or nine.—
—Youse as tattooed as a moose.—
—Moose don’t have no tattoos.—
—Youse as tattooed as a drunken sailor.—
—But I said, I said to you, Kerry, I said, what I say, Kerry, what?—
—I don’t know. You tell me what you said, mommy.—
—No piercings, no tattoos. I told youse. I made that mistake. I went down that road. What I got?—
—Don’t know, mommy, what you got?—
—That’s from dope.—
—That’s from dope, fuckn the wrong men, drinkin’ too much and getting’ too many fuckn tattoos. Now I got to get me on that interferon treatment.—
—Ain’t you on methadone?—
—No, I ain’t no methadon’ junkie.—
—Youse on somfin, mommy, ‘cause youse ornery like a snake.—
—Take off my make-up and buy your own.—
—This is my own fuckn make-up.—
—Don’t sass me, girl.—
—This is my own make-up which I bought wiff my own money.—
—You got a mouf on youse like a truck driver.—
—You got hips like a truck driver, mommy.—
—You got a mouf like a garbage truck.—
There was a way to fight. There was a way not to fight. When he fought Blue Rivers, Kid learned how not to fight. He didn’t train enough. In the ring, he did not get the shit kicked out of him. He wasn’t even beat up at the end of it. Sweat only danced on his forehead and chest. He did not drip with sweat. But he didn’t move. He didn’t jab. He tried to mix it up with Blue Rivers. Rivers turned it into a street fight, and Kid Coole was not a street fighter. He was a boxer, a prize fighter, tough as hell, but more canny when he was good, more cunning. He didn’t jab; didn’t move. He didn’t listen to Billy Faherty in between the rounds. There was a noise in Kid’s head, not words, not pictures, just a noise, and it prevented him from hearing Billy. He didn’t even see Billy or Mike White when he walked back to his corner in between the rounds. His legs did not feel strong. He wobbled. He walked uncertainly, just a bit confused.
How many times did he hear that name in his head, out walking, out running, doing roadwork, working out in a the gym, at home in his bed, back in his room on Poe Street, hearing that name, seeing that face: Blue Rivers. Blue Rivers. Blue Rivers. If he said the name long enough, perhaps it would disappear. But instead it seemed to grow inside of him. His one loss. He lost to Blue Rivers, a six-round decision in Schenectady.
Blue, he said at night. Rivers.
Then he heard another name, not of a fighter he knew or fought, just a name. It was Lutrec Spears. He was the Number One Ranked Lightweight boxer in the state, the region. People in the world of boxing expected that Lutrec Spears, not Blue Rivers or Kid Coole, would be in a fight for the championship soon enough. But who the opponent might be had not been determined.
Lutrec, Kid said as he jogged. Spears.
—Jesus! Billy screams. Will you look at him out there, Mike White. He’s doing that lost-in-space routine again.
Kid stumbles back to the corner at the bell.
Billy and Mike attend to their fighter between the rounds.
—You gotta get dirty, Billy tells Kid.
The bell rings.
Kid steps to the center of the ring and he accidentally steps on Larry Wolanski’s big foot in the arena in Troy, New York.
The ref doesn’t see it.
Kid didn’t mean to step on the other guy’s foot.
It was an accident. Like they say, it was a fuckn accident. Some corners remove padding from the gloves to make the punches more lethal. Dundee cut Clay’s gloves with scissors, giving his fighter enough time to recover from a punch.
Kid follows up with a punch to Wolanski’s temple. Larry slips from the punch. Ref calls it a knockdown and gives Kid’s opponent Wolanski a standing eight count.
The ref makes them touch gloves in the center of the ring.
Immediately the guy lunges for Kid Coole. Being too cute, they call it. Kid knows him. He lives across the river in Leathe, but he isn’t part of the regular fight crowd. Wolanski is a freelance fighter. He’s Polish, a cop, and his mother is a black woman from Sticks. Kid knows his sister Tanya who is very beautiful.
After the guy lunges for Kid, they get tangled up. Kid’s knee breaks against the other guy’s thigh. Larry gets a cramp in his leg, buckles over, and falls to the canvas from the charlie horse. He claims a low blow. But Kid is already in the neutral corner, waiting to put the guy away now. He looks around the ring, wondering if Blue Rivers is out there watching. He would like to nod hello to Blue Rivers, let him know that they have some business to settle.
The opponent’s corner is screaming to the judges to take a point away from Parnell Coole for a low blow. By calling him Parnell instead of Kid, they hope to rattle Billy and Mike’s fighter. But Parnell is his given name, so why should calling him Parnell bother Kid at all?
—Come on, come on, the ref says. Either get up or have your corner throw in the towel.
Which they do.
They throw down a towel, and their fighter is disqualified.
Kid Coole wins by a technical knockout.
—I was lucky, Kid says to Mike White in his corner, swigging from a bottle of water.
—Luck favors the prepared, Mike White says.
—Consider it a fuckn gift, Billy says.
—Yeah, the fighter says, breathless.
—A fuckn unmerited gift.—
—Grace, Mike White says.
—Yeah, Billy goes. That’s it.
—Grace, Mike White says again, smiling.
Parnell “Kid” Coole sat in a rocker on the porch of the nursing home next to Ella Buona. The old woman rocked in her own chair, watching the trees and the mountains around them. A feint whiff of sooty grime coated the air from the cement plant next to the home. His aunt also had the feint whiff of urine about her. Urine and old age. Old age and camphor. Camphor and lavender. Ella was a ward of the state, and this home in the Hudson Valley was where they placed her. Kid held her hand and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. Her grip on his hand tightened, and he pulled away from her. He did not like when people held his hands too tightly.
Ella Buona knew this, and so she instinctively patted his hands after that unnecessary squeeze. She gave him a Mona Lisa smile, deep, loving, enigmatic.
They called her Aunt Ella. But she wasn’t a relation. She lived next door to them in Brooklyn, and later on Long Island. Aunt Ella came from the Bronx. She was Italian, and she liked to joke that the Cooles didn’t have an ounce of Mediterranean blood, except for Kid.
—They stole you from the guineas, she said. The rest of them are a bunch of banshees from Ireland.
—Banshee are female, he corrected her.
—Where did you hear that banshee was all broads? she asked him.
—Mom told us when we was kids, he said.
—Your mother wasn’t Irish, she shot back.
—Maybe it was Dad.—
—Now there was a joker, she said.
—Banshee is female spirits.—
—Otherwise they would be banhee, right?—
—Right, he answered her.
—So, she said.
—So, he said to her.
They looked out at the countryside sloping down from the porch where they sat.
—Oh, the things in your head, Aunt Ella said, laughing.
—I don’t have a fuckn thing in my head.—
—You’re a sweet boy, Kid, Aunt Ella told him. You’re a sweet boy, and you’re a bright boy. You could go to college when you get out of that violence business.
—My mind don’t work that way.—
Aunt Ella took his right hand into her two hands and held it in her lap.
—You constantly amaze me, Kid. That’s why I love you. There’s something always going on upstairs.—
The porch was filled with rockers, often filled with other older people, too, who lived in the house with Ella. But some of the regulars had died during the winter, and the new group had not yet arrived. So the porch was only filled with rockers, and no old people.
Aunt Ella knocked the knuckles of her hand against his head and said:
—There’s a brain there.—
—Don’t count on it, auntie.—
—No, no, I kid you not, Kid.—
They both laughed at that last remark.
I kid you not, Kid.
Often, Kid would take a cab from Sticks to Leathe, and then grab a bus a few towns south to visit Aunt Ella at the nursing home. When he was little, he remembered going with his aunt to visit her brother in Yonkers. Her brother had been a fighter, too. They came from the Bronx, and he knew Jake LaMotta, and her brother was going to become a ranked fighter. All he had to do was throw one fight. Lucky for him he was drafted. Unluckily, he became a prisoner of war. Instead of getting his brains handed to him for pulling his punches, he was slow-tortured and dehumanized by his captors. When he came back home, he drifted back to boxing. Then he became a caddy at a golf course on Long Island. Eventually he wound up, prematurely, in a nursing home, not unlike the one Aunt Ella lived in, although Ella Buona was an old woman and her brother had been still a young man when he entered the home. After the first home they put him in closed, Kid’s family got Uncle Tony into the Firemen’s Home. Her brother still lived—all these years later—in the fireman’s nursing home in Sticks.
His name was Tony Buona, but his fighting name was Bushy Gilhooley, and Bushy was still rocking in his chair, even when it was not a rocking chair.
—You see my brother?—
—He all right?—
His aunt punched him in the arm.
—Whatsamatta? she asked. You can’t talk to me. I got to pull everything out of ya like a dentist pulling teef?
—He’s all right, Kid said.
What did the comic books call guys like Tony and Kid? They were ronin, masterless samurai. Yeah…
—Your brother knew the Raging Bull, Kid said.
—He knew them all, Aunt Ella told him. Jake. Rocky. The two Rockies. Sugar Ray. Not the Sugar Ray from today. The old one. The great one. He said he was the greatest fighter he ever saw, that other Sugar Ray. Carmen. Primo. He knew them all.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
I knew how to slip and slide, didn/t I, didn/t I, I knew the drill about duckin/ the jabs and slippin/ the power, and never dreamt it would be a sucker punch that deadened my senses and made me cock/eyed like Pop/eye after Bluto ran off with Olyve Oyl. They say that the punch you never see is the one that will get you, will floor you, turn you all around, and they are right about that one. I never saw it comin/, thought this dance would go on forever and a day, but this guy danced me into a corner, then he hit me with a kidney punch that put me on Christopher Street, lights goin/ out.
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.