In the Kid’s corner Billy Faherty screams. The cutman Mike White talks. The spit-bucketman Ralph Half-Dog adds his two cents. Everyone yaps all at once so Kid can’t hear any of them.
—Quit chimin’ in, his trainer Billy says. Shuddafuckup!
Everyone gets quiet. Billy Faherty is boss.
—Shut up Let him rest. Don’t confuse him. Let the Kid get his bearings. Let me do the talkn.
Billy squats down in front of his fighter.
—Don’t stand there, Kid. Move. If he’s hittn, get on your bicycle, and ride. If you get an angle, take it. Take the advantage. For god’s sake, son, protect yourself. You may not give a shit that you’re gettn hit, but I give a shit about you gettn hit. It hurts me to see you hit like that. You’re like the son I never had, Kid.
(Mike White would later remind Billy Farts that he had eleven children, many of them boys.)
Billy’s voice comes through the noise of the crowd.
—Quit chimin’ in, you morons, he says to the other cornermen in the heated, sweaty intensity of the fight card.
He holds the fighter’s face in his hands. Then he looks the Kid in the eyes. He has the young man’s attention as the fighter sits on the stool, getting his wind and energy back. Kid’s heartbeat goes from 180 beats-per-minute back to 45 in one minute flat. The Kid drinks the water from the sponge, soaking it into every part of his thirsty body.
—He’s ahead, Billy says. You can’t win on fuckn pints.
The Kid wants to ask him
—What do I do?—
But the fighter has no words.
Billy understands, having been there. He had been down in points like Kid Coole was.
—Knock him out, Billy Farts says.
He whispers it in the fighter’s ear.
—Knock him out. Knock the motherfucker out.—
Billy Faherty whispers these words in Kid’s ear the way a lover might whisper I love you.
—Knock out this fuck.—
So the Kid does. He did. He knocks out the other guy. Now he’s ten and one.
In the aftermath of the fight, driving back to Sticks, Mike White reminded Billy Faherty that he had eleven children. What’s the pint? Billy asked. The pernt was that Billy had told Kid that he was like the son Billy never had. Billy Farts laughed. Don’t take me literally, he told his friend Mike White. Why did you say that then? Mike asked.
—A figure of speech, Billy Farts said.
—Billy’s what they call a psychologist, Mike White said to his son-in-law, Ralph Half-Dog. He understands human nature, human beings and how they behave.
Ralph ate a burrito, and could care less about psychology, although he had enjoyed working the corner with his father-in-law, Mike White. Ralph was married to Mike’s daughter Penny White Half-Dog.
—See, Mike White explained to big Ralph, In the ring, Kid can’t remember the fact that Billy had eleven children. In fact, there are no facts on his mind, nothing like a fact in his head. All he can remember, goin’ back into the center of the ring, is the last thing Billy says to him, that he cares about the Kid even if the Kid didn’t care about himself, which is true enough. Billy thinks highly of Kid Coole as a boxer, but also as a human being. He thinks the world of him. He likes the Kid’s quiet nature, his clean-cut manner, the way he don’t get into trouble. He don’t make trouble that boy.
—Plus, he’s a fuckn good fighter, Ralph said.
Ralph was an enormous man, many hundreds of pounds in weight, wearing big overalls, with a long black ponytail, being Iroquois, people who didn’t believe in chopping off their hair, which was sacred to them.
—Plus that, son. Even if Kid could not listen to anyone else in his corner, he could hear Billy. Sometimes it’s hard to get through a fighter’s thick skull. No, not sometimes, it’s always hard to get through to fighters. They’ve got defenses. Walls all around them. Problems with communication with others. They’re all loners. But he likes Billy and me and now you, Ralph. Plus Kid’s not as thick as the others. He’s what you’d call flexible.—
—Malleable, Ralph said, remembering Billy saying it earlier.
—Uh huh, Mike White replied. He’s malleable. He’ll listen to you. He knows how to readjust his fight after Billy give him instructions.
—Jab, jab, jab, Ralph Half-Dog said.
The spit-bucket man.
—Combinations, Mike White the cutman said, not contradicting his son-in-law so much as verbally counterpunching him.
You could listen to Mike White’s advice. The only trouble was that you couldn’t hear him because of the noise around the arena. Even if Kid wanted to listen to Mike White’s advice, the fighter couldn’t hear him.
Billy Faherty was another story altogether. He had a big, thick Irish brogued-Brooklyn accent. His words came through. His voice was so loud because he grew up in a saloon and he had to call sandwich orders into the kitchen from his father behind the bar to his mother in the back, and he had to do it over a roomful of working men drinking, a jukebox, the TV blaring.
Gladiola lived on the other side of the courthouse square. Down Mountain Avenue. Before the Little League ball field and the button factory. Her house was big and crumbling, big and run-down; it had once been grand and now was falling apart. The living and dining rooms looked all right, but they had a foul damp odor to them. The kitchen was so old, it was a joke. She had a sink that looked like a basin you’d find in a gas station. The stove was fired by wood. Her refrigerator had a condenser on top, probably from the 1950s or earlier, and this was the 21st century.
There was an oil cloth on the table and it was streaked with peanut butter and jelly, sticky and dirty both. None of the chairs matched. None of the plates matched. The silverware came from diners where she stole it, piece by piece. The glasses were jelly jars. The linen was paper towels. The place mats she got from a fast-food joint on Route 9. There was a bare light-bulb over the dining room table. Paint chipped from the walls. Wallpaper peeled off another wall. The floorboards were wide, with big gaping holes in between the boards; they needed sanding, and had food stains and animal fur on them.
Upstairs, it was worse, the plaster had fallen off the ceiling and the walls, showing the old wooden lats and the guts of the building. The attic had no floor and the roof leaked. They tended to do everything, including their sleep, on the ground floor. Kerry slept in a room off the kitchen. Gladiola slept in a small room off the living room. In the old days, it was called the birthing room, because that was where people were born.
Kerry was born there, too, with a midwife assisting the teenage mother.
Before coming to Sticks, Gladiola lived in the Bronx. Her father was a fireman. She had eight brothers and sisters. They lived on City Island. Although she told everyone that her family was Irish and Shinnecock Indian from out on the end of Long Island, her mother was from Jamaica, both the island in the Caribbean and later the neighborhood in Queens. Her father was Irish, Italian, and probably Mohawk. That’s what she told Kid as he sat there in her big, messy kitchen.
—It was a nice life, she said.
But she was not convincing, and he didn’t believe her anyhow. Kid didn’t know anyone who had a nice life.
—We never wanted for anything material, Kid. We just didn’t get much love from my parents. They were as needy as their children.
Kid had run into her in the Price Chopper out by Route 9, and he turned on his heels when he saw her looking at him in the ice cream aisle. She ran after him, told him to wait, she apologized, said she was being crazy. Would he come by her house? She believed him. So he was sitting there in that ramshackle big house on the other side of the court-house square. Gladiola was in storytelling mode, and Kid was the perfect audience, being someone who rarely spoke, much less told stories.
—I got pregnant. Fifteen years old. Jeez. Parents would not let me have an abortion. They planned to give up the baby for adoption once it was born. There was no question of me marrying or keeping the baby. So I left home. Moved to Sticks. I knew a guy who had done time in the prison and I’d visited him with a friend who went out with the guy. It was far enough away and far enough from the Bronx for them not to find me if they even bothered to look. Probably they didn’t look.
—Sticks was a town of outcasts. No one blinked when I entered. Rented a room upstairs in this very house. Eventually I had a boyfriend who, with his drug-money earnings, purchased the house for a few thousand dollars. When I was eighteen, he put the house in both our names, even though we were not married. Then he o.d.ed in the bathroom off the kitchen. The house became mine.
—I was eighteen years old, a mother of a three-year-old child, jobless, penniless, but I had me a big-ass house in Sticks. So I took in boarders. Fixed it up. This is as far as I’ve got on my fix-up project. Fifteen years, man. The downstairs rooms are inhabitable, but only barely. Some days the moldy, mildewed smells overwhelm the best of us. But it was better than when Jocko Reiss owned it with me. He could fix anything, Jocko, only he had a bad jones for smack.—
Kid noticed that her street manner, her slangy way of talking, had gone away, and she spoke in a normal voice, not edgy, not tough, not from the ‘hood. He liked it. Kid didn’t go for the street talk, the street jive, the street attitude. Fuck that street attitude, he thought. I want to be as clean-cut and simple-living as I can be. I want to be a model for people. I want to be what Billy Farts told me to be—dignified. A man of dignity and worth. Yeah, I want to be dignified and outstanding.
But Gladiola was back to talking to him again.
—People used to rent the upstairs rooms. But most of them were doing crack, and they were the ones who stripped the ceilings and the walls. They were the ones who stole the original fixtures to sell them to the antique dealers on Harding Avenue. Sticks was a bit of an antiques capital even then. But only Harding Avenue, just like now. The rest of the town is still the same, never changing, keeping its old veneer, its odors. Hey, man, did you know that this town was a whorehouse for sailors in the 19th century, a whorehouse for bootleggers and then drug dealers in the 20th. In the 21st century, very little’s changed, you ax me. Now Sticks is a crack house for the Hudson Valley, a place where state workers from Albany can find cheap whores and even cheaper drugs, and it’s far enough from the capital not to cause them any trouble. Likewise, the other direction: it’s far enough from New York City, so that if you’re fleeing a life down there, no one bothers to come this far to find you.
—The newcomers are all people from the City, artists and the like. The antique dealers. Two-home people from the northern suburbs. Me, I’m part of the old guard. Every once in a while, a painter might ask me to pose for him or her, and I will, but mostly I stick with the others, the you know outsiders, people like you and me, I don’t mix with the newcomers, the people from the city, the artsy-fartsy crowd. Give me the flat-foot waitresses from the diners on Route 9. Give me the beer-bellied motorcyclists from the riverfront. I like people who are tattooed and pierced, wandering the streets looking for drugs or a glass of whiskey. If Sticks had a Mary Magdalene, I’m it. I’m her. Gladiola Magdalene.
—What’s your story, Kid? How did you wind up here?—
—Mr. Patterson, he said.
—Patterson, who he, a social worker?—
—A boxer, Kid said.
Kid didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, stay up late, or curse much. He barely talked. He was like a ghost, she thought, so quiet and stalking around the edges of rooms. He was so dark and quiet. He was so still. He was like a monk. He had got that, what? Yeah, serenity. He had gotten a tranquility about him. He was peaceful. When you shook his hand, you expected he’d do it hard. But he was soft, his handshake was as loose as a girl’s. If you squeezed his hand, he pulled away. He was shy, Gladiola thought.
—She’s too young to fuck, she said to him.
—Don’t play fuckn dumb with me, Kid. You know who I mean. My daughter. She’s only fifteen. Don’t fuck around with her. Friends, okay. But don’t fuck around. That’s a warning, man.—
—I’m cool, he said.
—You cool all right, Gladiola answered back. You Kid Coole, that’s who you is. You fuckn Kid Coole. You could be a fuckn rapper with that name. You could be a gang-banger. You could be hip-hopping down Harlem and Bed-Stuy with a moniker like that. You could be the king pimp on State Street with that johnson.
—I saved her life, he said, matter-of-factly.
—That’s why I let youse in my house. But don’t get no ideas from being here that you can get cozy with her. Not with me neither. I don’t even like men. Women is a lot prettier than men.—
—I like you, he said.
—Well, I don’t like you, man.—
—If the cut opens up, Billy says, I’m gonna stop the fight.
The cut is a bad one, in a bad spot. On the eyelid. Top part. A good punch would open it. A jab opens the cut. The blood rolls off the eyelid into his right eye. It is warm and it blinds him. He can’t see the other guy’s left hooks and that jab he stings Kid Coole with. He hates it, that jab. It is a nasty punch. At first, it did not seem like anything. But as the opponent kept landing the jab, it stung, then it began to hurt. He cannot explain the feeling he had when the eyelid opened. How was there even time for explanations? Kid could feel the eye dangling in its socket. The last thing in the world Kid wants is for someone to punch it.
He is blind in one eye and he can’t see from that side. But he times it. He counts. One-two-three. Jab. One-two. Double jab. Kid takes the first jab. Counts. As the other guy lets go of the first part of the double jab, Kid slips under the jab, and he whacks the opponent good on the ribs. It feels good to be so close to him, hearing his breath. Kid knows the guy can’t jab from the inside. He follows the rib shot with an uppercut, and it lands on the guy’s lower jaw. He can almost feel the other guy’s feet leaving the canvas, and the body becoming weightless. It is the fifth round, right toward the end of it. Kid comes over the top with a right cross. Then he hits his opponent on the liver with a left hook. Kid hits him in the heart, and the other guy is out on his feet. But the other guy won’t go down.
A left to the head.
A right to the head.
The opponent grabs Kid and holds on. Don’t get cute with me now. Don’t try to dance with me until the bell rings, and then dance your way through the last round and a win.
Kid’s blood runs down his opponent’s back. Kid doesn’t even know if he has an eye left. The adrenaline runs through him so fast he knows he won’t be able to answer the bell for the final round if he does not put the other guy away now. The other guy has Kid tied up. If the ref breaks the clinch, Kid believes that the guy will fall on his face.
The ref shouts:
—Punch out of the clinch—
But the referee does not separate them.
Kid bucks and jiggles and does everything to break the guy’s grip, and just when Kid is ready to give up, the opponent lets go.
His hands are at his sides. He has eyes that are like Christ’s on the cross. The eyes are turned heavenward. They’re filled with piety.
There is no more fight in this guy. He looks like an angel about to ascend into Heaven.
Kid throws a left to the body. He throws a right. The other guy’s glove catches it because he now tries to cover up, to protect himself. That’s when Kid Coole lands a big straight right on the temple.
The opponent falls like a sack of potatoes. He goes down like a sack of shit on the canvas.
The referee counts him out.
Kid’s twelve and one now.
Kid came by the gym in Sticks, a butterfly stitch in his eyebrow and down through the socket of his eye. He sat in the office waiting to talk with Billy Farts who was on the telephone trying to affect a fight for Kid Coole. Billy’s eyebrows were filled with scar tissue, too. His hands were criss-crossed with scars. Kid once saw Billy with his shirt off, and he had a long scar from sternum to belly. He’d had open-heart surgery, plus part of his stomach removed.
When Billy Farts got off the telephone, it was almost like he was reading Kid’s mind about the scars. Billy Farts had a far-away look, dreamy and nostalgic. He said:
—It’s in the genes. Some fighters bleed. Others don’t cut easy. They’re resilient—
—Resilient, Mike White said. What the fuck, man. Billy’s got himself some vocabulary, hey, Kiddo? His head filled with all kindsa shee-it. Now I thought resilient was something good raincoats had. I didn’t know it was a thing a great fighter had.
Then Billy Farts said,
—They have the ability to recover quickly from misfortune. I never met a raincoat that suffered from misfortune—
—That’s ‘cause you never watched Colombo on the television, Mike said.
Resilient. Something good raincoats had. Like Colombo’s. They recovered easily from misfortune, like being wet and crumbled in the bottom of the hall closet. English raincoats were resilient. They had silicone impregnated in them, Mike White thought. Kid Coole was like a good English raincoat. Punches popped right off him like rain beading down off a good raincoat made in England. That’s about all England was good for, as far as Mike White could tell. They weren’t that good with their boxers, except for one of two, that Lennox heavyweight, and that light-heavy from Wales, the one with the Italian name. Joe Calzaghe. But Wales ain’t England, Billy Farts once told Mike White. Wales was Keltic, just like Ireland and Scotland. Maybe you had to be Keltic to be truly resilient.
—White fighters cut easier than us black folk, Mike White said.
—Says me, Mike said.
—Bullshit, Billy Farts said. Bull-fuckn-shit.
—Truth, Mike White answered back.
—Truth, my ass, Billy said. Resilient fighters do not cut, be they black or white. I seen black guys cut and bleed just as bad as the lily-white Irish fighters of my yout’. I seen white guys like Billy Conn not cut and bleed. Go figure, huh?
—They were waterproof, Mike said. They was like the stuff on raincoats. Resilient.
—God had to give you something good, Billy said to his partner and friend. The Higher Power gave you something good because of all the shit He gave you. But pain is the touchstone of spirituality.
—Praise the Lord, Mike White shouted. God is good, Billy. God is great, Billy Farty. And I think the Kid’s okay.—
—Pain is the touchstone, Billy Farts repeated.
Mike White was a road-map of scars. Besides the scars in his eyebrows and under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose, he had scars on his face that have nothing to do with boxing. Some kind of pox he had as a child. His skin was so dark, you couldn’t see the scars unless he was close up. And he had a long scar down a cheek.
There were open-heart surgical scars on Mike White, too. Plus his body was filled with knife, broken bottle, and bullet scars.
—Black America ain’t always Dream City, Mike White said. You cut or be cut. I cut me some, and some cut me. Eye for eye, Kid, just like the Lord say. Safest place for me’s the gym. I feel right at home in the ring, then I got comfortable in the corner. The corner’s home to me. I feel safe there. It’s my bunker.
—Don’t listen to his shit, Billy Faherty shouted. Mike White was born ugly. He makes Sonny Liston look handsome.
Then Billy got serious. He looked over at the Kid.
—You keep cutting like that, Billy said, you won’t have too many more fights left in you. Believe me, sonny boy. You cut like that, and it’s over. Lucky for you Mike White’s your cutman. Mike knows a thing or two about stanchn a wound. Am I right, Mike White?
—Right as rain, Billy.—
—You cut like that, Billy Faherty said, you ain’t gonna be able to sustain an effective defense against the jab. You’re not gonna be in this business much longer, mister.
Mike White defended Kid and said the Kid had strong skin.
—He’s like Ali, Mike said. The Kid don’t cut easy. That was a motherfuckn headbutt. Kid don’t cut.
—Yeah, that was way back when, Billy said. But now he cuts. He cuts all right because he’s all cut up, Mike White. It don’t matter a fuck whether it was headbutt or straight right. A cut’s a fuckn cut. He got opened up, and that means in the future, he’s more likely to open again, right at the fuckn pint where the last fuckn event took place. Right on his fuckn eye, Mike.
Kid Coole had scars in his eyebrows and over his eyelid now. He had scars on his cheekbones and on the bridge of his nose. But he had more breaks than scars. His nose had been broken so many times that he had lost count. But instead of looking at what he did not have, Kid tried to focus on what he did have. He had his legs. He had his balance. A good punch. His spirit was good. He was focused. He knew how to concentrate. He was in great shape. He didn’t drink or smoke or take drugs or hang out or do weird things that hurt his body. He didn’t eat meat. He slept a good deal. His dreams were regular and kind. Not only did he have a good punch, he could take a punch, too. His reflexes were sound. The stamina was fine. He was blessed with great energy. Other than this cut over his eye and through his eyebrow, he had never been seriously hurt. Despite this big cut in his eyebrow, he was not a bleeder, at least not yet. His skin was resilient, like a raincoat, Mike White said. Like an expensive English raincoat. He had resilient skin. He did not bleed easily. He did not tire. He rarely lost his focus. He never lost hope. He never would want to kill himself. He was salt of the earth, Billy Farts said, a blue-collar fighter, a working-class boxer. He was a lightweight, Mike White said. Fast on his feet. Quick with his hands. Sharp with his moves. Speedy with his mind. Alert. Responsive. Clear-eyed. Focused. He was Kid Coole, the next lightweight champion of the world. He was Kid Coole from Sticks, New York, formerly of New York City, Brooklyn and Long Island. Formerly a delinquent. But now a fighter. A boxer. Part of Billy Faherty’s stable. One of the main fighters for the clubs in Sticks and Leathe. An upstate fighter. But soon-to-be a downstate fighter, at the Garden, and maybe Atlantic City, Foxwoods, maybe even Las Vegas. He was a simple, clean, elegant fighter. He was a decent guy. He was not a hard-ass, not criminally minded. He wasn’t a nutter, Billy Farts said, sounding very Irish when he said that Kid Coole was not a nutter. He was, Kid was, like Billy Farts said, tough enough. He was also good enough to get himself killed, according to Billy Faherty, Kid was good enough to be killed.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
Take this young boxer I once saw, a gym out in Brook/lyn, he cd punch, stick and move, he had a punch all/right. Sparrin/, I wd see him buckle an opponent/s legs with the force of his left hook on the liver or his right cross landin/ on a weak jaw or the side of a head hit with a boom. He fought in the Golden Gloves, nervous as a young bride at the moment of her vows, and tho he won a gold medal, he was not impressive the way he cd be in the gym out in Brooklyn. When he turned pro, I saw him at the Garden, Atlantic City, yeah, even Philadelphia, Pee/Aye.
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.