—Maybe it’s not your fault but ours, Billy Farts said. It is our problem. We are your corner. It is our job to guide you into your own corner and onto the stool as quickly as possible. Your job is to fight for three minutes. Our job is to take care of you for the minute between the rounds. The more of the one-minute that you rest and we can work on you, the better our man fights. Am I right, Mike White?
—Right as rain, Billy Farty.—
The Kid did not follow these two older men. But he acted as if he did. He nodded his head in agreement with them.
—We need a third party in the corner, Billy Faherty said.
—Like the big-time fighters, Mike White added. We need us a full-time spit-bucket man.
That’s when they told the Kid about Ralph Half-Dog, Mike White’s son-in-law and landlord on Muhammad Ali Way in Sticks. Ralph was married to Penny White, Mike’s daughter.
—How big’s Ralphie, Mike White?—
—Big-big, Mike White answered. He four-hundred-and-seventy-five pounds maybe, and still countn. He a big mo’feck.
—That’s why we got him, Kid, Billy said. You can’t miss him. The next time the bell rings, and you turn to look for your corner, Ralph Half-Dog is gonna call you home. Big fuckn Ralph Half-Dog, all four-hundred-and-whatever pounds of him.
—And the opponent’s gonna take notice, Mike White said. He gonna see you got a three-man corner, just like all the big-time fighters. You got Mike White, son-in-law Ralph Half-Dog, and the best trainer in the business, Billy Farty.
—T’ree’s the charm, Billy Faherty agreed.
—How ya doin’? Kid asked.
—How’m I doin’, Kerry said.
—Why’s it any of your fuckn business? she asked him.
—I don’t know, he said. I just wanted to know. Don’t you remember me from a few weeks ago?
—You was in trouble.—
—Yeah, he said. In the alleys.
—Alleys? she asked. What you suggestn?
—I don’t know, he said, confused.
—Well, it’s none of your fuckn business how I’m doin’, okay?—
—Okay, he said.
—So fuck off, junior.—
Kid slumped off.
—Fuckn guy, she said. Who the fuck he think he is axin’ me how I’m doin’?
—Who he? her girlfriend asked.
—How the fuck I know who the fuck he is. Some scum-bag from Sticks, I don’t know. Some crackhead.—
—He acted like he knew youse.—
—He doesn’t know shit, my friend.—
—Just hittn on ya.—
—Yeah, that’s right, Kerry said. He was just hittn on me.
—What he want?—
—How the fuck would I know what he want?—
—Maybe he wanted a date.—
—Maybe he wanted to lick my pussy, she said.
Kerry had a way of bringing the conversation to a close.
—Yeah, that’s probably it, her friend said. He probably wanted to get down with y’all.
—And I ain’t inna-rested.—
—Yeah, you too cool for that dufus, man.—
After sparring, Kid showered and got ready to go home. But Billy was in a talkative mood, and so the Kid stayed behind and listened.
Then Billy Farts said, sitting in his chair, feet up on the desk,
—A fighter lives and dies by the jab.—
And Kid Coole had a jab. It was like an enormous kick, like a cat-scratch, a dog-bite, like a swarm of bees stinging your face.
The trainer motioned for Kid to sit down, and he did.
—Larry Holmes had a jab like Sonny Liston’s. They could knock you off your feet with their jab. Muhammad Ali had a flick-flick deceptive jab that would make an opponent’s eye swell like a balloon, then pop open like a combat wound. Joe Louis’ jab was so good and hard, opponents were not able to lift their arms after ten or twelve rounds from his jab hittin’ them and his jab flickerin’ across their heads, faces, and bodies drove them to madness. Rocky Marciano had a great jab. Every great fighter sets up his punches behind it. You are nowhere complete as a fighter without it, and if you don’t have one, eventually a good fighter who does will beat you silly. You don’t take up boxing and expect to get anywhere in life if you are not willing to learn how to t’row and use the jab. If used properly, it is both offensive and defensive. Some even know how to knock out an opponent with their fuckn jab, rare as that may be. You keep the other guy off-balance with your jab. You puff up the other guy’s face with the jab, then you slice open that puffiness with a slashing hook or a straight right. You keep him backin’ up or, at least, not comin’ forward to do damage. That’s what they mean by ‘going back on your heels.’ If your jab is good, it puts the other guy back on his heels. You jab straight through their face into the back of the head, right through the brains and their thoughts and ideas, into the back part of the head, back where all their silly movies run, imagining them great fighters, receiving accolades and hosannahs. You punch straight ahead with it. Right through into the eternity of their minds. Some fighters are body snatchers, punching the body until it cries out for help and then surrenders. Others are mind-catchers. They are jabbers, pokers, spindlin’ their dreams off the straightness of the jab. You punch straight forward with it, straight into the eye socket and through the brain and into the guts of who that person is. You live and you die by the jab, Kid. You live and die by it.—
—You need a jab, see. You need a good jab. Your jab is the punch that sets up everything. Jab is what makes you a great fighter, not just a good one, what makes you get to the big punches, without it your game being nothing. You don’t lunge with it. You shoot it out from your shoulder, stiff and straight, right toward the head. Temples fine. Maybe you get a knock-out that way. Jawbone, too. But mostly it is there to soften up the eye tissue, get the brow all puffy. Once it gets puffy, then you cut it open with the cross or the hook. You slice open that puffy face and it bleeds. You get blood all over you, but it is worth it. I once saw this guy’s eye hanging out of his head on this string inside his brain. I looked inside his skull and I saw his brain. His brains were as ugly as puke, and the ref still did not stop the fight. So I had to knock him out. I knocked out the guy. But first I hit him a few more times with a stiff jab, right on that eye string hangin’ out of his head. Kid, it was weird, man, tell you what, his brains were hangin’ out of his eye sockets, and the ref would not stop the fight...
—The old timers say that your legs are the first thing to go, Billy said. The old timers say your punch is the last thing to go. But I think maybe it is the mind that is the first thing to go. The last thing to go is the spirit.
Billy lit a cigar, coughed, then stubbed it out.
—Have to stop that fuckn dee-scusting habit.—
The bell rings.
The Kid’s fighting in Rome upstate at a Knights of Columbus hall.
He fights three minutes. He jabs. Jab. Jab. Punch. Move around the ring. Jab. Jab. Jab. Punch. Punch. Get out. Move around. Round ends. The Kid turns. Confused. Where’s the fuckn corner? Seconds tick off. Then the Kid sees him. Ralphie. Ralph Half-Dog, the spit-bucket man.
—Yo! Yo! Ralphie shouts. Get your fuckn ass over here, Kiddo.
Ralph Half-Dog wears bib overalls. His arms are bigger than the Kid’s whole upper body. His hair is black and long and Ralph wears it in braids.
—Over here, Kid, Ralphie shouts.
The Kid trots to the corner. He sits on the wooden stool. Billy Farts removes the mouthpiece. The Kid spits into Ralph Half-Dog’s bucket. Ralph’s father-in-law Mike White applies an icy, steely Endswell to the swollen eyebrow.
—Beautiful, Billy Farts says.
—You okay out there tonight, Mike White says.
Ralph Half-Dog says nothing. He ain’t paid to comment. He drifts away from the corner as Billy and Mike work on the Kid. His job is completed until the end of the next round when he stands and calls the Kid to their corner again.
Billy slaps the Kid’s cheek lightly after putting the mouthpiece back.
—You’re beautiful, sonny-boy, Billy says. You’re my best fuckn fighter, Kid.
The Kid stands.
Kid Coole goes back out to fight.
The woman jimmied the lock to the door with a credit card that she held in her right hand and she kept her left hand on the doorknob. Sweat beaded her forehead. Unbelievable that she was doing this. But she was mad. She was mad. No, she was angry. No, she was pissed. She knew it. And she skillfully opened the door and silently moved across the room. Mad, mad. Angry, angry. Pissed, pissed. It was more like a cell than a bedroom, and he slept deeply in it. Mad. Angry. Pissed. She was. He slept like a baby. Well, get ready for a nightmare, baby.
Kid liked his sleep. When he was not working in the plastics factory or training at the gym, he slept, ten, twelve, even fourteen hours at a time. His trainer Billy Faherty said that Kid was more cat than human. But this woman, stealing across the floor, seemed even more catlike than the sleeping Parnell Coole. And she was very angry. She was as angry as a junk-metal yard dog, pissed as an abused Rotty or a vicious pitbull. She stalked over to the bed where he slept, Sleeping Beauty and now she was the Beast, this pretty pretty angry angry woman. This pissed woman. This mad woman.
Without warning, she scrambled toward the bed, then jumped on him, slapping his face hard. Whap-whap.
From a deep, peaceful sleep, Kid woke to this human torrent thrashing on top of him. He woke, eyes wide open, but not moving as she slapped him, again and again. Maybe because he could not orient himself to where he was, he simply conjectured what might be the case of where he was and how he got there. He imagined that he’d been knocked out in the ring and was coming to in his corner, his handlers slapping his face. But there was no smell of ammonia from the salts, only a vague odor of this woman’s perfume.
Rule One: protect yourself at all times. But how did you protect yourself when you were knocked out?
Kid took in what was before him, a perfumed and beautiful fury of hand-slap and voice-shout, kick and grunt, curse and holler. She wore jean shorts that were cut-off near the top of her thighs and a cut-away tee shirt and sandals. Her midsection was tight and muscular, and her washboard muscles were deep tan. Her hair was in corn-rows, and her light copper skin glistened with the sweat of her exertions. Corn-rows, he thought. But then:
—Dirty fuckn motherfuckn dirty fuckn motherfuckn bastard.—
Each word was punctuated with a hard slap to his face or neck.
—Don’t you ever ever never go near my daughter again. She’s only fifteen years old, you fuckn fuckn shithead.—
She hit his face and arms and chest, punctuating her blows with her useless curses.
—I didn’t do nuffink.—
Yet he didn’t even know who or what this woman might be referring to. Usually he was too tired from work and the gym to go out with anyone. The only woman he met recently was that one he helped in Jailbird Alley.
This woman could not mean he did anything with the girl. What was her name? That girl: Kerry. The one who shot him down when he said hello to her the other day.
His eyes took in the woman on top of him, slapping his face. She looked like the girl in the alley, maybe she was her older sister.
—Helped her in the alley, Kid said.
—What, you dirty perverted motherfuck?—
—I helped her. Didn’t do nuffink to her.—
She stopped hitting even though she would not let him up, and he told her about the incident in the alley, early in the morning, when he was out doing his roadwork.
—Who did it?—
—Was he black?—
—What’s it matter?—
—Are you black?—
—What the fuck is it to you?—
She was the color of half the people in Sticks, give or take a black father or a Bangladeshi mother, one parent Spanish-speaking, the other American Indian.
—He was your color, Kid said. Whatever you are, he was that color.
—What you mean by that, I’m axing you? You Prejudice?—
—I ain’t no Prejudice, he said. I’m a mutt too.
—Mutt, my fuckn ass.—
—You gonna let me up?—
—So was he black?—
—He was like you.—
—I’m black, she said.
He sat up.
—Can I pee?—
—Not so fast, she said.
She pulled the sheet off him. Pulled down his pants. She slid out of her cut-away jean shorts. She hopped on the piss erection. But he could not come because of the piss he needed to let go of, so after awhile, she stopped.
—Go to the baretroom.—
—Thanks, he said, stepping over her.
He went down the hall and looked in the mirror. His face was red on one side from her hitting it. The welt resembled his face when he’d been fighting, not covering up, and the stinging end of a jab swelled up the skin under his eye. He put cold water on his face, and it felt good. Then he went back to the room, imagining a brilliant rendezvous with this destructive angel. He imagined resuming what they left off, only now he was ready to go to town with her. Ready, ready, to rock ‘n’ roll. Ready to boogie. He was ready to rumble. Let’s get ready to...
When he walked in the door, the woman was gone. No note, no signs, just a hollow space where she had been, an empty space and the silence.
—Damn, he said, wishing that he had not gotten out of bed so quickly, that he did not have a piss-erection, but the real deal to do her good, because she was a fox, man, she was looking good. She was a looker, man. The girl be lookin’ tight, she be fine, man. She had style, a high-class ass and high cheekbones. Damn, she had corn-rows. He loved them corn-rows, all lined up in a row, like, like corn. Yeah.
She was like sweet corn. Only now she’s gone.
What a shame, man.
So he got up and went into his gear, put on his running shoes, and went out the door to do his roadwork.
He ran up and down the alleys, back and forth, time and again, east to west, west to east, hardly breaking a sweat, praying he didn’t run into any vicious dogs. He also prayed that he would see her again.
What did she say her name was?
His punches sailed through the air at imaginary targets, at imagined opponents. He threw combinations, though holding back just a little. If he were to throw punches at full-force, he’d pull a muscle in his back. You needed an object to land on if you weren’t going to pull a muscle. You needed a face or a stomach, a liver or a spleen, the chest or the Adam’s apple. You punched through the object to the other side. But shadow-boxing, you held back. You didn’t want to pull a muscle doing roadwork. That would be what Billy Faherty called
What was her name?
Her name was: what?
Peaches. Nah. Candy. Nah. Tiffany or Dawn. Nah.
Cornrows in a row, like, like, like corn.
Like corn, man.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
My head was full of flickerin/ black light and my head full of black lights, flickerin/, I told my/self later, you should have seen it comin/, every/one saw it but you, the angles, the deception, the sly tip/toein/, pitty/pat of those graceful feet, the dreamy sweet nuffinks, every/thing one big fix, you big shmuck, the cornermen shoutin/. How could you not see it comin/? the roundhouse to the head, the short body punches, hard and painful, to the liver. The heart punch stopped yr heart from its beatin/. His two/punch combination to the head stopped you from ever thinkin/ again, friend.
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.